Our special effects gurus get better all the time, and at the same time, their product becomes more affordable with improving technology, making it more ubiquitous in entertainments. I first wrote about the impact of this phenomenon back in 2009, when I asked Are Special Effects Killing Hollywood?, a question which shed a new light on the then-rampant edition wars of D&D.
Four years on from that, it’s fair to ask if I have any new thoughts on the subject. As it happens, I do, and this article is my vehicle for sharing them with you.
The Hollywood State Of Play: An Update
First, let’s update the state of play. Four years ago, Avatar had not yet happened, and neither had Iron Man 2 (never mind Captain America and The Avengers). The Harry Potter movies had not yet reached their finale. Twilight was not yet a franchise, and Star Trek had not been reinvented. “Sherlock Holmes” had not yet popularized the trope of the brilliant assistant using the star as cover (thought this trope HAD been used before, notably within another Holmes movie for comic effect, “Without A Clue” from 1988). And 3D was still a short-lived 1950s marketing gimmick.
It seems no-one in Hollywood recognized the dangers that I described in the article four years ago, or if they did, they were already committed to the course. Personally, I think “Avatar” and 3D were the final nails in the coffin. The studios are now geared entirely around the need to have at least one blockbuster movie every year to pay for all the attempted-but-failed blockbusters and keep the studio afloat for another year.
Visual effects have become even more seamless and even cheaper. The GFC has happened, but it’s not going to be until mid-2015 that we start to see the impact that this has had on the finances of movies that have been entirely in development post-crisis; we’re still in a transition phase between movies that may have been impacted in the course of their production but that had not borne the full brunt of the impact on budgets.
Is the “new” 3-D craze beginning to wear off? The newest entrant in the Star Trek Franchise is the first movie that I’ve ever seen that found it necessary to promote the fact that it would also be in 2D cinemas on the movie posters. Audiences have hit a high mark with Avatar, and started waning since – with some notable exceptions.
The Silver-screen Age Of Superheroes
The 1960s have become known as “The Silver Age Of Comics”, the period when they were at their most popular. Right now, the magic tickets for a successful movie is either an established franchise (declining in benefit), a lucky shot by a wild card from out of left field (The Life Of Pi) or superheroes. Spiderman 3 wasn’t a success on the same scale as 1 and 2, but was by no means catastrophic. Iron Man 2 was even more successful at the box office than Iron Man 1 had been. Captain America wasn’t a huge financial success, but didn’t do badly; Thor was a bigger movie, but also a bigger success. The Avengers was a bonafide success, eclipsed only by the recently-released Iron Man 3 – which, in its first ten days of release, made more money than its two predecessors plus Thor plus Captain America plus the Avengers plus the Hulk movies, combined. With the actors happy to keep going with the franchise if the studio want to do so, you can bet that new contracts will be exchanged sooner rather than later. At least another 15 superhero movies are in production, or shortly will be. Cast your eyes over this list:
- Man Of Steel – June 2013 release
- The Wolverine – July 2013 release
- Thor: The Dark World – Nov 2013 release
- Robocop* – Feb 2014 release
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Apr 2014 release
- The Amazing Spiderman 2 – May 2014 release
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles* – June 2014 release
- Transformers 4* – June 2014 release
- X-Men: Days Of Future Past – June 2014 release
- Guardians Of The Galaxy – Aug 2014 release
- The Fantastic Four – Mar 2015 release
- Avengers 2 – May 2015 release
- Ant-Man – Nov 2015 release
- X-men Origins: Deadpool – in development
- The Flash – in development
- Green Lantern 2 – in development
- Masters Of The Universe – in development
- Voltron* – in development
- Robocop* – in development
Okay, so there are a couple of movies people might consider spurious on that list (marked with an asterisk). You might also want to check out Box Office Mojo’s slightly-out-of-date list of the top-grossing superhero movies since 1978. To reach my 15, I assumed that there would be no new movies announced over the next year from Marvel Studios (hah!) and that only 2 of the six movies currently in development will actually get made – which in the current box-office climate seems rather conservative.
There’s a strong arguement to be made that the post-avatar period could be considered “The Silver-screen Age Of Superheroes”, when you put all this together. (Actually, I would argue that it was the success of the first X-Men movie that really started that age, but then someone would point to the Dark Knight and the credibility it received for Heath Ledger in “Formal” Hollywood circles, and someone else would point to Superman: The Movie (1978) or Batman (1989) or Men In Black (1997), and then someone else would point out that superheroes had been successful in movies long before that, going back to the movie serials of the 1940s (refer Wikipedia’s page on Superheroes in Film). Heck, even Top Gun and Terminator had obvious superheroic influences in their plots and looks. But Avatar marked a turning point – there’s very little in sci-fi in movies since then that aren’t superheroic in nature, and when you’re talking Visual Effects -heavy, you’re mostly talking superheroes or sci-fi or fantasy, let’s be honest.
Marvel Heroic RPG
And yet, despite this boom, Margaret Weis Productions announced a few weeks ago that due to lagging sales, it had released the Franchise rights back to Marvel and was about to cease all publication of materials created under that license. And the big question was “Why”? If, in the current climate of success for superheroes in the media, you could not make a go of a Marvel Superheroic gaming franchise, you never would – or so it seemed to me. There was quite a discussion about the issue in at least one linked-in group that I’m part of, and a number of reasons developed as to why this particular franchise was too restricted, and at the same time, too ambitious, to succeed even in the current climate, and speculation that the release of the franchise rights would very quickly lead to a new spin-off RPG license to take advantage of the marketing ‘boom’ (and to help drive it further at the same time), probably by the end of the year.
None of the mooted reasons that were mentioned was the impact of the phenomenon that I described in 2009, the inherent difficulty that gaming faced in a seamless special-effects media environment – not even by me, because I was of the opinion (and still am) that the current wave of success of superheroes in media would permit a successful franchise license to operate if any ever could.
There’s even been a new term coined – or, more properly, appropriated – for use in describing the degree of immersion that the modern generation of cinematic and visual-effect techniques creates: Hyperreality, a state in which the viewer becomes so embedded in the artificial reality that he accepts whatever he sees within that artificial reality as genuine. In other words, the dividing line between effects and reality has become so blurred that audiences can no longer tell where one ends and another begins – which has always been a key ambition of special visual effects, going all the way back to the best sci-fi of the 1950s and 60s (The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) comes to mind, for example. We’ve certainly come a long way from Ray Harryhousen‘s stop-motion effects and those of the original 1933 King Kong.
The term originally described the state of mind of the subject of hypnosis, and the suggestibility that resulted. It then developed through association with psychology to refer to the state caused by some mental disorders in which the victim can no longer distinguish between reality and an environment they have fabricated around them. Personally, I would characterize conspiracy theorists as suffering from a dose of that problem, but that’s neither here nor there.
Hyperreality & RPGs
As I mooted in my article 4 years ago, all this places additional demands on the GM when it comes to an RPG. At the time (and I was hardly the first to do so), I compared the Imagination to a muscle. Before the computerized special visual effects revolution (T2 and Babylon 5), the imagination had to work harder, and people were better at using their imaginations to conjure up a scene from a few lines of descriptive narrative by the GM as a result; they were used to it. The theme of my 2004 article was the impact of the developing hyperreality within the media apon that mental “muscle” and the consequent difficulties that would be faced by GMs, and hence by Gaming, in general.
To be honest, at the time, I saw this as something that might take place over a decade or more to become really significant, but musing about the Margaret Weis Productions announcement led me to awaken the next morning with a line of text in my mind: “The gap between hyperreality and reality has never been so small.” I don’t know if this is a line that I have read somewhere, or if my subconscious mind fabricated it completely independently. Heck, I wasn’t even sure “Hyperreality” was a real word. So I plugged it into Google and got 1.6 million results, including the Wikipedia page referenced above. What was most interesting to me was a single line towards the end of the Wikipedia article that used the term to refer to the immersive reality of movies like “300”, because of the special visual effects. That brought to mind my old article, and that in turn led to this follow-up.
I realized that almost without noticing it, I had seen over that four-year span, a concrete difference in the ability of my players to use their mental “muscles” to generate a simulated reality within a game, and that my GMing techniques had evolved to help bridge that gap. I’ll describe those changes in due course, but first I want to take a closer look at the phenomenon of hyperreality itself, and how it impacts on gaming.
Is hyperreality inevitable?
Everything is becoming more immersive, and the dividing lines between reality and simulation are blurring ever more. The more we pave over them, the more those gaps between reality and hyperreality become nonexistent. MMORPGs, Virtual Economies, Virtual currencies such as the BitCoin (Wikipedia article and a timely primer on the new virtual economy that was published 8 hours ago, as I write this, on the New York Times’ Website, Reality TV, the Visual Effects impact, even product placement blurring the lines between advertising and entertainment – the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, along with a whole host of his kinfolk.
Since this is the new reality in which we operate – a world with hyperreality embedded within it – gaming has to evolve if it going to survive within this changed environment.
Hyperreality vs verisimilitude
Gaming has generally striven for verisimilitude, occasionally going so far in this quest that it oversteps the mark and begins to impact on playability. Complicating this balancing act is the fact that the “line” in question is different for everybody; some people can cope or even thrive with a game balance that is more extreme in one direction or another. Complicating the question still further is the fact that what has been summed up in a nice neat label, verisimilitude, is actually a whole bunch of different phenomena. Some GMs are better at improvising narrative within a combat sequence than others (I’m in the latter camp). Others excel at constructing societies and making them feel real. Still others are better at constructing plots that are plausible, and that lead to plausible resolutions, within a given framework. Yet another group may excel at pursuing the ramifications of plots and having them influence future developments within the game. The list goes on and on, and they are all talking about one aspect or another of Verisimilitude. In general, we can all agree on the broad statement that “It is desirable to have as much verisimilitude as can be accommodated within the bounds of playability and the need to entertain”.
Hyperreality is not the ultimate expression of Verisimilitude, though it may look like it; hyperreality is a condition in which the mind thinks to itself (subconsciously), “everything else has so much verisimilitude that I will accept this incongruous element as having equal believability even if it doesn’t actually make sense”.
The impact of becoming accustomed to Hyperreality is to add a substantial weight to one side of the verisimilitude-vs-playability balancing act, by demanding a higher standard of verisimilitude within the game. This has the effect of making games harder to play, and more demanding GM, and less playable.
This begins to suggest the strategies that RPGs and GMs need to employ to survive in an entertainment environment that has grown accustomed to heightened artificial realities. There appear to be two choices open to the hobby or to individual games: Embrace and come to terms with the new reality or fight it, kicking and screaming. Or, perhaps, there is a third choice, a way to do both.
The employment of Hyperreality Elements within a gaming environment
Okay, we’re now getting down to the nitty-gritty. These are techniques that I, and others, have developed in order to make our gaming a more immersive experience. They all require a greater investment in prep time for the GM (and sometimes in financial outlay as well). Some may be rendered impossible to access by the physical environment in which you play.
I use a lot more physical props than I used to. Where once I might have been content to state that Character “X” received a letter, I’ll often now generate that letter, complete with a fake letterhead and signature – something that I demonstrated in passing in Shades Of Blue: Variations On U.N.T.I.L. last November.
I’m forever searching for ways to make props that are more interactive for the players. In my Zenith-3 (superhero) campaign, we are currently approaching Christmas. For several sessions, Christmas planning has been a recurring subplot. I’ve had each of the PCs think of a list of gifts. I’ve had them write each gift on an index card which was placed inside an envelope with a “From” and “To” label. On the outside of that envelope, I had them describe the shape and attributes of the contents as they appear before being unwrapped. The idea was that each player would receive gifts, get the (roleplayed) entertainment of trying to figure out what was inside from the description, get the visceral experience of tearing open the envelope (symbolically unwrapping the ‘gift’) and then the entertainment of receiving the gift itself (more roleplay). (Unfortunately, I got the wrong sort of envelopes – and then made the mistake of sealing some of them. These will have to be cut open, while those which were left unsealed may be more accessible but lose that ‘opening’ experience to at least some extent. Oh, well).
In a way, I hate miniatures. They’re heavy (when you have a bad back), take up a lot of room, and are always a compromise. At the same time, they help massively at the task of creating immersion, especially in a rules-heavy part of the game like Combat. I do my best to live without them but they are becoming more and more essential to my games.
I generate and use a lot of maps these days – a lot more than I used to. They provide context to any travelling that occurs simply by showing what’s around it. Some maps I make by hand; some maps I screen-capture from Google Maps; some maps I download from various internet sources; and so on. For the current Pulp adventure, there are no less than 14 maps (plus 11 variations tonally shifted to print more clearly) – but it’s exceptional. The adventure before: 11 (total). The one before that: 9, total. For the next adventure, we have 15 already – and more to come – but that is once again going to be exceptional.
In comparison, for the Zenith-3 campaign, I have relatively low map usage. The sheer speed with which the characters can travel using teleporter technology or spells means that there isn’t a lot of need for them. Most of what I might once have used maps for is now depicted with dungeon tiles that will accommodate miniatures. The same is true, to a greater or lesser extent, of my Fantasy Campaigns – I’ll put a lot of effort into something that is likely to get reused multiple times, like the “suburban locality” map of the capital of the Shared Kingdoms, Capitas Duodiem (made available to the public in The Shared Kingdoms: A Premise from the Shards Of Divinity campaign) – and almost no effort at all into other maps.
Photographs. Especially for the Pulp campaign, and to a lesser extent the Zenith-3 campaign, we/I will use a LOT of photographs. People. Places. Key objects.
I maintain a file of free clipart and stock photo resources, from which I source the illustrations that accompany the articles here at Campaign Mastery. For private use, though, I’m less concerned with respecting the copyright of others (while remaining grateful that a photograph has been made available at all), and employ the power of Google Images – a lot. However, I will not make these images public in any way, shape, or form. To supplement these, whenever I spot an image that might eventually prove useful, I save it – at the moment, I have over 27,000 such images, totaling more than 2.85Gb – and that’s not counting the ones that have already been used. Since I rarely find the time to sort these, however, it’s usually faster to go hunting for a fresh image than search through my archives. (I’ve gotten reasonably adept at photoshopping out various modern artifacts that would be incongruous).
I normally put all the pre-specified pics in a folder and name and number them appropriately, then display them on a laptop. I suppose the next step might be some sort of presentation software, but that might be less responsive and flexible and unnecessary work, even setting aside operating system compatibility problems (my laptop is running Ubuntu, my PC runs Windows).
Portraits on T-Shirts
Something I’ve never done, but would love to do, would be to source some photographic or artistic illustration of each PC and have these printed on a T-Shirt for each player – so that when the players look at each other, they can immediately see the character that the player is representing. As an aid to immersion, the value would be incredible, and always on – in Combat, in Roleplay, while performing everyday tasks.
Something I’ve used very sparingly (for environmental reasons) are Soundtracks, both original and purchased. I offered a sample, “Ogre”, in Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 2. For the original Fumanor campaign, I created an entire 9-track suite. Because it’s in MIDI format and relies on a soundcard that has not been in production for years, it won’t sound quite right to anyone playing it on more modern equipment – MIDI means that each soundcard provides its own version of the instruments and the “song” contains on-off and other control information for handling those instruments. So what I heard as a particular guitar sound or percussion sound when creating the music would not be what anyone else hears (or what I hear, for that matter). (For the record, to hear them properly, you’ll need a SoundBlaster Awe-32 Soundcard, though you could get away with an Awe-64 – I could hear the difference even if a lot of my friends couldn’t). These pre-date the Soundblaster Live!, which came out in 1998, a full fifteen years ago!
Nevertheless, because I can, I’m including a zip file of the Fumanor soundtrack. Just don’t expect too much from it!
I’ve also done title themes for the Zenith-3 campaign and the Shards Of Divinity Campaign. The latter’s been done as MP3, the former I was never completely happy with – and it was also done with the old AWE soundcard Which is why I started redoing it last year – but I haven’t had time to finish the project.
Sound Effects are an idea that sounds great, but that come with some genuine practical difficulties in organization and administration. My hat’s off to anyone who uses them extensively in their campaigns, because organizing them and finding the next one to play is really a full-time job in itself. I once thought about using some of the mixing software out there to keep a continuous loop of combat sounds going, with background environmental effects, and death sounds that could be kept muted in the mix until a combatant went down, but it began to seem more effort than I could sustain. I’d still like to give it a try some time.
Game Rules and Hyperreality
Game rules will have to be profoundly affected by the needs of a hyperreal game. There are two approaches: they can ease the GMs prep workload with simpler game mechanics so that he has more time to focus on hyperreality preparations, or they can become even more detailed in outcomes of actions while more abstract in paths to those outcomes – which is a more complicated approach than that currently employed by most games. We’re talking about separate combat tables and effects for each different weapon type, something similar to that employed by Arms Law way back when. In general, though, I think the first approach will be more popular and will continue existing trends.
In many ways, D&D 4E can be characterized as the first attempt at a game system that incorporates a response to the needs of hyperreality – but it compromises plot and narrative flexibility to achieve this, and that’s the major reason I don’t like it. From what I have seen, DnDNext is trying to restore flexibility in those areas by making different compromises in game mechanics, seeking an intermediate solution that is an acceptable compromise between 3.x and 4e – but that’s a superficial review at best, and no attempt is guaranteed of success.
The Compound Effect
Movies are essentially pictures and sounds. To make RPGs more immersive, pictures and sounds will do the job of making the game world and events more immersive to the players. New developments in tech may also get added to the mix – combat simulators, for example.
Combating the trend to hyperreality with Gaming
The alternative is not to surrender the high ground without a fight.
Clearer, more descriptive narratives will carry part of the burden. Greater understanding of the psychology, both on the part of the GM (for application to both Players and Characters) and by Players (for application to their characters. Game mechanics that can be expressed more readily as character actions and which aid the GM in creating that better, more concise and descriptive narrative. Games that build visual and visceral interactions into the rules. Rulebooks that include information on how to write effectively for an RPG. Games that build exercises to boost the imagination into their game mechanics.
Yes, there are exercises to boost creativity and imagination. They rarely yield improvements overnight, but they do work. In fact, a Google Search I just ran for “Exercises to improve imagination” yielded 15 MILLION results.
It’s ironic, but the same two broad rules trends are required to achieve this – simplification to free the GM to work on those better narratives and greater sophistication and complexity to generate more detailed narratives. Incorporating narrative and descriptive elements within the rules themselves, just as ICE used to describe critical hits (no matter how little sense they sometimes made).
I can conceive of a system where a GM’s helper is fed the results of a die roll (having already been told the AC of the target and the weapons armor etc in use) and offers from a table and the degree of success a narrative description of the round’s action for the GM to use as a basis for describing the action.
One of the keys to success in this respect is maintaining literacy and the reading of fiction – and not just a well-known favorite, but a new book, something you haven’t read before.
Just as some people feel that a literary counter-culture fringe has or will evolve in which people read books instead of watching movies, gaming could go down this path to become an anti-hyperreality counterculture.
Having your cake, and eating it too
If there’s one lesson to take away from the duality of the two gaming solutions being largely parallel, it’s that it could very well be possible for us to have our cake and eat it too. Why not employ hyperreality tools as a jumping-off point for better, more concise, more descriptive narrative? Why not employ a better understanding of the characters and their motivations to craft more enticing and interesting interactions between plot, character, and player? Why not simplify core mechanics so that more detailed and specific sub-mechanics can be accommodated?
There’s very little in the two solutions offered above that is mutually exclusionary. The choice between developing better narrative and developing more/better audio/visual aides is just another realm for each GM to seek his own compromise, a balance that works best for his style, his players, and his campaign.
It is possible to marry the strengths of both solutions to achieve a better game. The only path to disaster lies in doing nothing. Have you thought about your campaign’s potential use of multimedia lately?