I was catching up on a Documentary series recently aired on Australian TV over the weekend just passed, called “The Sixties”. Each episode attempts to encapsulate one aspect of the singular decade of my birth, whether it be the Civil Rights Movement, the War in Vietnam, or – in this case – the Space Race.
Something that Tom Hanks said as part of the show kept bouncing around in my head, realigning stray thoughts sparked by a book on Superhero comics called “The Superhero Reader” by Hatfield, Heer, and Worcester, and what emerged was a different perspective on why many Americans seemed to lose interest in Space after the first Moon landing, why a few did not, why the popular imagination was recaptured briefly by Apollo 13, and why it faded once again.
And then I realized that this perspective had a relevance to RPG adventures and campaigns that made it worth a public exploration here at Campaign Mastery.
“From my perspective, as a kid, we were in a race against the Russians, and the Russians were The Bad Guys, and they were winning this race, and that meant they were superior to us, and yet they were The Bad Guys.” – Tom Hanks, “The Sixties”, episode “The Space Race”.
The Makings Of A Hero
As someone who runs a superhero campaign, and has for a long time now, this quote yielded deeper meaning. In superhero comics and stories, the other side is often superior in many respects, the hero out-gunned or outnumbered or both. It was to enable the character to be more easily challenged, producing greater drama, that Superman was first explicitly de-powered in the 1970s. There is always one respect in which the hero is superior however – the quality that makes him a hero of the old school, his moral superiority. He’s the good guy, and that enables him to overcome the odds at the last second, discover some fundamental chink in the overwhelming force (relative to him) that he is confronting, and achieve the victory.
And that’s the end of the story.
The Apollo Story
The Space Race, as Hanks points out (indirectly) is completely analogous to the superhero conflict. The enemy is superior in capabilities, seemingly unstoppable, and – in the early days – failure by “our heroes” occurs again and again, while the Evil Empire goes from one triumph to another. But slowly, NASA got it’s technological act together, and began to claw back ground.
It’s not clear exactly when the “good guys” caught up with the “bad guys” (some say it was the Gemini 8 mission where they successfully docked with another rocket), but it had clearly (in hindsight) occurred by the time the Apollo 8 mission orbited the moon, its mission profile having been moved up in the schedule because the LEM (now known as the Lunar Lander) was not yet ready for testing. The Soviets, shortly before that mission, were able to place a satellite into Lunar Orbit and photograph the far side for the first time, but this paled in comparison to the feat of placing men into Lunar Orbit and retrieving them safely.
With the successful landing of Apollo 11, the popular Zeitgeist was that the story had reached its crescendo, the good guys had once again triumphed over the bad guys, finish your popcorn and let’s go home.
There are resonances with the smashing victories of the Second World War in both stories, too. There, once again, the Allies were faced with a seemingly invincible enemy, one who seemed capable of achieving victories with seemingly nonchalant ease – witness the speed with which France had been overwhelmed. But the Allies (not yet including the US), expecting invasion at any turn, held on through the Battle Of Britain to achieve an against-the-odds victory of survival; and then the Nazis were defeated by the allies (now including the US); and then, finally, the War in the Pacific was won, bringing to an end the last of the Axis powers. Each of these represented many smaller victories and achievements, and there were more than a few defeats along the way, but “the good guys” won in the end. And then that story ended, and the troops came home to hero’s welcomes.
If you were writing it as a proposed Movie Trilogy, Movies two and three would appear to be the wrong way round. The Nazis, as the original “bad guys” of the plot, can’t be defeated until the end of the last movie. But this is real life.
You see the same thing in many of the movies of the era, too. You win, and the story ends.
Psychologically, then, many US citizens were predisposed to Apollo 11, and the achievement of the defined mission – “Landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” by the end of the decade – meant that the story should then end. Except that it didn’t; Apollo 12 followed, with all the drama of wet spaghetti from the perspective of the public at large. If it had been packaged as “rubbing it in”, they might have gotten away with it, but these were engineers who sought to eliminate all potential for drama and excitement from the program because those were signs of things having gone wrong. NASA’s professional pride made such an interpretation impossible. Small wonder, when the story still didn’t end (with the announcement of Apollo 13) that interest was at a fairly low ebb, and stayed there. At least until…
The Emergency In Space
Without warning, there was drama and excitement aboard the Apollo 13 mission. An explosion on board the spacecraft threatened the lives of the Astronauts in so many ways that it’s difficult to count them all. It’s worth noting that the movie (starring Hanks) actually glossed over several of the problems that had to be confronted and defeated!
Once again, we had a story of an intrepid band facing overwhelming odds – and once again, we had a triumph, perhaps one that was as great as the road to success of Apollo 11 in the first place. It would make – did make – a compelling story, and suddenly the Space Program was the hottest story in the world for the second time.
But “Our Heroes” won against impossible odds, the Crew came home safe, and the second story ended.
Except that the Apollo missions dragged on and on, like a movie that didn’t know when to stop.
The Sublimation Of Enemies
Not everyone lost interest in Space, of course. And almost universally, those whose fascination remained had a characteristic in common: they were able to sublimate Space itself, or ignorance, into the Ultimate Enemy. That was part of the nerve touched on by the original Star Trek – it showed a world in which that enemy had been defeated, paving the way for new and interesting challenges.
For most people, though, the remainder of the Apollo program, and Skylab, and the shuttle program that followed it, was just part of the wallpaper. They would miss it if it was gone, and the regretted the expense of maintaining it, but it was just there, and nothing to get excited about. Hence the budgetary cutbacks of the 70s and 80s.
Some people might debate my suggestion that the public would miss the Space Program if it went away completely, but I think the grief after the shuttle disasters showed that people did still care, in a diffuse and background sort of way.
And from time to time, there were other success stories that captured the public imagination – and, strangely, they can all be cast in the same basic mould as the ones described already. The plucky little Voyager probes which braved the dangers of deep space to bring us images of the outer planets. Half-Blind Hubble who astonished us with magnificent images – once gifted with his almost-magical corrective lenses.
Once again, as soon as their stories were done, these dropped from the public consciousness. How many people who went gosh-wow over the images of Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons, give passing thought to the space probes that captured those images and where they are today? Are they even monitored in case they discover something unexpected, out in deep space? The answer is no, obviously. You don’t have to think about these missions that way; I’m certainly not suggesting that this is the right way or only way to do so! But it is a way of looking at them that explains why they captured the public imagination – at least for a while – and then faded into the background for all but the cognizanti, and that’s what’s important here.
The Relevance to RPGs
RPG adventures and campaigns are tales in this same heroic mould. That’s a large part of their appeal. And that means that they should come to a definitive, clear, end – and then either stop, or get out of the way of the next adventure.
A long time back, I wrote an article about compacting a plotline that had been underway for too long in one of my campaigns: When Good Ideas Linger Too Long: Compacting plotlines. At the time, I couldn’t work out why the plotline had lingered too long, just that it had (because the players were clearly growing tired of it), and that I needed to accelerate the reaching of a definitive conclusion.
Now, with this new context, the reason becomes clear: The PCs had encountered, and defeated problem number 1. But the story didn’t stop; problem number 2 arose, and was defeated, but by now it was clear that the solution to adventure number 1 hadn’t solved everything. And neither did adventure number 2. Or three. Or Four. It was while working on adventure number five, which was building directly toward the crescendo of Adventure number 6 in this little mini-campaign within a campaign, that I realized that I had a problem, wrote the article referred to, and did something about it.
I also touched on this issue peripherally in my two-part article on Sequel Campaigns (Part 1, Part 2). What I have now realized is that aiming for shorter, more discrete campaigns with inbuilt plans for a sequel can be more advantageous than I had previously thought. This is a radical shift in my thinking; I typically design very broad, very long, campaigns, and those campaigns sometimes go through lulls when there isn’t a lot of caring about the campaign on the part of the players. Then a new adventure will re-engage them, the campaign will build up a new head of steam, and things will go fine – until the next dead spot.
Quite often, these lulls don’t affect the players equally; some remain interested in the campaign because the adventures remain relevant to their characters and appeal to their preferences in storytelling. That’s why dead spots don’t occur at the end of every adventure, or even every second adventure. The more players you have, the more likely it is that at least one of them will be able to sustain interest on behalf of the group, motivating and encouraging the others. At the same time, the more players you have, the harder it is to keep the campaign interesting for everybody.
A side note:
It follows that each GM has an ideal number of players in terms of sustaining overall interest in the campaign, whether they realize it or not; this is entirely aside from other administrative and GMing problems with too many players, it solely concerns the number of players that they are able to keep interested in the campaign. For me, the optimum number is 4-5; others have told me 5 or 6, based on subjective experience, and again without being able to explain why it is that a campaign with more players tends to lose one or two until it reaches that optimum level.
Finally, this places into a new context my recent two-part article, “The Wandering Spotlight” (Part 1, Part 2), which is all about maintaining player engagement in the campaign even when their characters aren’t the central focus of an adventure. Within this new context, this can be described as ensuring that other players have something to sustain interest when their part of the story seems to have ended.
Applying the Theory
This is all too new and raw to have a major impact on my campaign or adventure design. In fact, you could say that most of the lessons to be derived from these thoughts have already been implemented in my different campaigns, one way or another (described in more articles here than I can readily count). However, those changes were implemented without regard to why they worked or were necessary, beyond the most superficial understanding. What this new insight offers is a reason for the necessity of those changes and techniques to be implemented, and that in turn provides a means of validating future proposals and enhancing the benefits that it is hoped that they will yield.
Understanding this makes me a better campaign designer, a better adventure designer, and a better GM. Understanding some fundamental principle always does, even if it has no immediate practical application. But it’s still worth shouting about, don’t you think?