Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Joy of Mini-Chronicles

The Joy of Mini-Chronicles
by Tobie Abad

Time.  One of the biggest hurdles in finding opportunities to enjoy table-top games is the lack of time.  As we get older, we slip free from what seemed like imprisoning school-centric schedules to what we believed was a chance to indulge in hours we totally had free of assignments, homework and research... only to discover how much less free time we have now that we work to earn our keep, have errands and chores to maintain, and commitments to keep.  Maybe in the past, having a weekend game that ran from six p.m. to nine p.m. the NEXT evening might have been normal.  But now, with partners to spend time with, children to raise, and jobs to keep, gaming clearly takes a back-seat among the many things in your plans.

But no, it shouldn't go away.  Sometimes, a one-shot game, while fun, just doesn't cut it.  But a chronicle - which was described as a series of stories composed of a series of game sessions which usually take a large number of real time months - might be out of the question.   It just needs to be given a new shot of life in the form of mini-chronicles.

A mini-chronicle is best imagined as either the "movie version" of your favorite book or television series, or a single season of British television (given how a single season can sometimes be composed merely of six or eight episodes at the most.)  Comics are familiar with this approach, with narratives being told as a mini-series rather than a full ongoing series.   D.C. comics once had this line called Elseworlds where new stories were told with familiar characters or concepts, but given a whole new twist.  And what made them really cool was the writer seemed to have the freedom to go all the way with the story.  Basically, consider shaping a story that will contain its opening scene, and make a small list of probable endings the story might approach.  Then with the help of the players, find out what particular stories, themes and ideas they want to explore as well.   And from that, you got the ingredients for your mini-chronicle.

The trick is to make each session of your mini-chronicle cover a lot of ground.  And that's where television and movie magic comes in.

You have plans for a rescue mission to introduce the enemies and have the players meet a vital recurring non-playing character?  Then open a game session with the rescue mission already at its peak.  Have the heroes currently guiding the npc to safety.  Or have the firefight against the enemies already at its peak.  With the bullets flying, the screams rising, and the panic rising... your players will definitely feel they are deep in the tale and would be dying to learn more.

Time to break away from the "You are all at a tavern bar meeting room [insert desired location].." opening approach.

Rather than make everyone or everything a first time encounter or visit for the players, introduce them as things the player character is familiar with or accustomed to.  For example, instead of going, "A knight approaches you and introduces himself to you.  He is from the Order of bla bla bla.." say, "You see a familiar face.  Lord Kingston.  You first met him three years ago when the Order of Roses assisted your father in clearing out goblins from a monastery."   That way the introduction, while new for the player, does not feel new for the player characters.  The player, as well, gets subtle hints that the guy can be trusted, that the guy is an ally, that the guy is martially capable, and so on and so forth.   This maximizes time and allows you to say so much more about a character or location without waiting for the player's long list of inquiries.

Consider also using flashbacks to explore certain moments that you want to zip through, yet still give some attention.  For example, the group's last scene was the rescue of a synthetic human from an exploding zeppelin.  You cut forward to the dinner the mayor has thrown for the heroes, hearing about their success and getting commendations from the press and other guests, and play it until you reach the part where they are all seated with the mayor and his foreign guest... you mention how they are all staring at the guest, with shock and tension rising in their hearts.     Cut back to flash back.  The heroes see the nemesis, Dr. Chaotec.  They demand his surrender, and he responds by snapping the synthetic human's neck.  One opens fire and the bullet grazes his face.  The left cheek.  Cut back to present.  The foreign guest's left cheek shows a recent wound.  He wraps an arm around the mayor as he laughs, just the way old friends do.  But the players, they remember the synth instead.

Given how in a mini-chronicle, every session counts, don't feel that a single game session has to maintain a single forward flow of time.  Jump between scenes.  Drag the past forward to explain the present.  Echo events in the past with present concerns.  Embrace a statement of fear for the future as something you might opt to leap forward to and force the players to confront.

The game is a short chronicle.  The game isn't meant to be a drawn out tale.  So if drama demands it, embrace the call for death.  For non-playing characters, let them feel death's touch when the players most felt a connection with them.  The npc lover becomes a victim.  The favorite recurring shop keeper is suddenly the monster they have to defeat.  The parents of the player character sacrifice themselves to buy the hero time.

Think of Obi-Wan's sacrifice in Star Wars: A New Hope. Think of almost all the movies that had Sean Bean.  Think of the Serenity movie and how (spoiler warning) the deaths in that movie made you curse out loud.  Let death be felt in the mini-chronicle.    Let death really painfully matter.

And even better, if you have a player who is willing to join the fun, stage a scene where a player character also meets a final hurrah.  Perhaps in exchange the player can have a new role to play.  Or perhaps the player is willing to first mate, and from that point on, portray his favorite non-playing character. But yes, if you have a player who is willing to let her character face certain doom, play it to the hilt!  Make that death a scream fest.  Draw the tears.

It is a short chronicle after all, so raise the stakes!  Your adventuring heroes are trying to stop a war?  Then raze their homelands, raise the dead, and make the skies weep blood.   Your super heroes are trying to defeat the genius from taking over the future?  Then have the multi-verse shatter.  Have the concept of time be diluted into a super serum.  Have the villain, out of pure petty jealousy break the moon.

If not raise events to incredible heights, stab them deep into personal levels.  The vampire rival wants to kill the player character?  Then let him become the player's exact duplicate, and have him nearly kill all of the player character's family and friends.  Then have the villain come to them afterwards, become their best friend, and offer to kill the player character for them.

And no, that's not enough yet.  Stab it deeper.  In the final fight, the family happens to be witnesses to it.  Have them cheering the villain on.  Have them cry out for his blood.   And even if the player character himself doesn't see these things, cut away to such scenes for the player to know.

Barring players who asked you to keep the game light and fluffy, embrace the opportunities of a mini-chronicle to go the limits of dramatic narrative.   Our Last Best Hope has a system called Death Cards, which players draw as a card to play for a moment in the game where he dies and gives extra dice for the survivors.  Why not adapt something like this, hand players out cards to give ideas on how they might want to do a final death scene, but leave them to decide whether or not to incorporate it?

Don't be afraid of jumping forward either.  One game session ends, and you open the next with, "It has been ten years.  Adjust your sheets to reflect what you think they've developed in that time.  You can mention five key moments that happened and shaped you further in those ten years."   Such developments rarely happen in many groups since games are approached with an almost day-to-day feel in a game session.

So yeah, this is a mini-chronicle.  Maybe in game session two, one of the player chracters already has kids.  Maybe in game three, the guy's got grand children.  Explore these new avenues which might have never been touched before in longer campaigns.

Yes, usually in a chronicle a game master throws away the ideas of planning an ending given how games keep going on and on and on.  Some groups map out an ending early, and lead the chronicle eventually to that point.  In a mini-chronicle, not only can you plan this out early, you can even give it a six-degrees of separation feel in unfolding it.  Note down a key moment or scene in each game session that you liked.  And as you near the final session, flashback to these moments, whether as visual cuts, or with key lines, and have them empower the final terminal steps to the end.

Fiasco ends each session with each player getting a scene to play out, whether dead or live, on how the story ends for them.  Do the same with each player having some final realization or monologue to share.

Then... curtain.

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