I’d like, in this article, to take a closer look at something that I mentioned in passing on a previous occasion – specifically, the concept that sports simulations and similar games can get away with less engaging storylines because competition itself generates its own narrative.
In a sporting contest, one side scores, taking the lead and the other side then has to not only outmatch their opponents once, they have to do it a second time in order to move ahead in the contest between the two; if they only score once, then the scores are tied, and if the first team then score again, the second team are back where they started. Inevitably, one team faces a greater struggle than the other, and the first team to score sets up a bias in their favor for the rest of that particular contest.
The more scoring modes there are, the greater the number of variations that can influence the game. The concept of try conversion, for example, rewards the team who scores in one mode (the Try) with the opportunity to add to their score through success in a second mode (the conversion). This doubles the number of potential outcomes from the initial scoring move, and means that the opposition may no longer have to match their opponent’s scoring move but also their secondary success. Failure to do so leaves the team behind on the scoreboard but close enough to launch a counterattack – if the first team can be prevented from adding to their total first.
This creates scope for tactics, both on the field and in approaching the scoring opportunities. One team may be more capable of scoring a try while the other scores less frequently but is far better at conversions. Ultimately, every contest writes its own story as the game progresses.
The same is true when considering a larger narrative structure – an annual competition comprising many games and leading to a grand final or other showdown of some sort. Instead of each play being a chapter unto itself, each game or contest is a chapter in the collective narrative.
It is often said that the reason sport is so popular is that anything can happen, and you never know what will happen next. Even in very one-sided contests, the actual story can contain twists and turns that no-one saw coming.
The same is also true of other forms of contest – boardgames, or online games such as you find on a casino site like this, or another online gaming site, like Not Doppler. You can argue that the cash incentives – and cash risks – of a Casino site more closely resemble the ‘real world’ in that there are genuine risk vs reward decisions to be made, exactly the way that characters should approach their in-game decisions – as though the world being described is real.
The RPG equivalent
There are distinct similarities between sporting contests and RPGs.
Each action in a combat situation can be seen as the equivalent of a play of the ball. Each combat therefore becomes the equivalent of a single game within a season, and each adventure can be viewed as an entire championship or series, and the campaign becomes analogous to a team’s entire history.
Or you might take a slightly longer view. Each combat, each contest, is seen as the equivalent of a play of the ball; each adventure thus becomes analogous to a single match, and each season is the equivalent of a campaign.
Of course, there’s more to an RPG than just combat; but other forms of encounter – be they with traps, roleplaying opportunities, puzzles, mysteries, or whatever – can be considered just another scoring mode.
There are several ways that this resemblance can be of use to the GM.
To start with, you can examine the reporting of sporting contest or games for clues as to what would work in reporting the events of an RPG session/adventure afterwards, in particular the level of detail; the contextual framework that needs to be provided in order for the stakes – what each team is playing for – to be appreciated; and the need to avoid repetitiveness in detailing the competition.
Secondly, you can study the way sports live commentary is used for clues as to how to describe the in-game action to the players. If using battlemaps and miniatures, television commentary is probably the most appropriate for this purpose; if not, radio commentary.
Third, both you and your players can employ the resemblance to aid in structuring the way you think about situations, placing them in a slightly different context. In terms of combat tactics, this can be especially useful, but it also applies to roleplaying encounters. How do you define “scoring” or succeeding in this particular encounter? If you keep that in mind at all times – the slightly bigger picture, in other words – and make achieving that your primary focus, everything that a character does will be performed with a purpose.
Fourth, this perspective can be a way to step back from the intensity of the game when you start losing focus. A good story always engages on an emotional level, but it should always be remembered that an RPG is a game, and the purpose is for everyone to have fun.
And, finally, it becomes possible to employ other analogies to help analyze a situation and develop tactics. If the PC’s goal is to place a mystic gem in the bellybutton of the stone idol – or liberate same – is that not the equivalent of scoring a touchdown? A blocking line is the traditional way of preventing that, and impairing the mobility of whoever is in possession of the “ball” while restricting that character’s capacity to pass to another. That’s the view from the GM’s side. For the players, knowing that the opponent’s focus is on the “ball” enables strategies such as a player breaking away from the pack and then receiving a long pass – there’s no such rule as “off-side” in an RPG!
Let’s take a look at each of these in a little more detail.
The Reporting Application
Reporting on a sporting event is always about what you leave out. Blow-by-blow accounts grow increasingly dull and hard to follow with increasing irrelevant detail.
For example, here’s a writeup of an entirely fictional twelve lap motor race:
“Lap 1, Tomkins leads. Lap 2, Tomkins leads. Lap 3, Tomkins leads. Lap 4, Tomkins leads. Lap 5, Tomkins leads. Lap 6, Tomkins pits, Harkness leads. Lap 7, Harkness pits, Dumphries leads. Lap 8, Dumphries pits, Tomkins leads. Lap 9, Tomkins leads. Lap 10, Tomkins leads. Lap 11, Tomkins leads. Lap 12, Tomkins leads. Tomkins wins.”
Sounds dull, doesn’t it? Adding a handful of incidents involving other drivers can improve it – very slightly. But the real way to improve this story is by telling it as a story. Start by providing a context, and use every word that follows to describe events in terms of that context.
“Tomkins has pole position for the fourth time in a row, but his car has been plagued with mechanical fragility all season. If he doesn’t start scoring soon, the defending champion will have no hope of retaining his crown at the end of the season. Unfortunately, he knows it, and his driving all weekend has had an air of desperation. Standing between him and the victory are second-place qualifier Harkness and third-place Dumphries, both of whom have picked up the scraps from Tomkin’s failures. Harkness in particular has been driving with a confidence and composure that we haven’t seen from him before, and is emerging as a real threat to take the title. Of course, the contest between Tomkins and Dumphries is personal, the two have a real dislike for each other and have been sniping at one another in press conferences all year. Whoever thought it would be a good idea to put the two in one team must surely be regretting that decision.
“Tomkins swept into the lead despite a challenge for the first corner from a fast-starting Dumphries, an audacious attempt that left Dumphries vulnerable to Harkness on lap 2. Mayhem ensued behind as Gentry and Milkin collided, a stray wheel bouncing across the infield perilously close to Tomkin’s car, and forcing him to take evasive action. On lap 6, rather earlier than expected, Tomkins pitted, and everyone feared that his mechanical gremlins had struck again, but the pitstop went smoothly, leaving him in third place. Over the next two laps, his rivals were forced to do likewise, and on lap 8 the race order was restored. But Tomkins, warily assessing every rattle as the checkered flag approached, held on to claim the win and was visibly relieved and emotional after the race.”
This report could be trimmed or expanded as necessary, but it demonstrates what’s fundamentally important – every word is about Tomkins’ pursuit of a much-needed win, even the accident of two other cars. He is also painted as the underdog, even though his qualifying position argues otherwise.
At the beginning of any race season, there can be five or six or more contenders who have the ability to win the championship if everything goes their way. Because reporters don’t know which of them will emerge as the most successful, they have to detail the events of all of them. In addition, anyone who emerges as an unexpected Dark Horse needs to be watched for and mentioned. But in almost every case, there are just one or two stories that matter in the wider context, and the rest are mere footnotes.
That’s how to report on a race in isolation – establish the context, then deliver the story as it relates to that context. A GM should synopsize events in the last game session or last adventure in exactly the same way. If something doesn’t immediately relate to that context, no matter how important it may prove to be in the long run, it shouldn’t be mentioned until it becomes significant – if that means dropping a reminder of a specific past event into the middle of narrative, the time to mention it is when it becomes important, because that is the context for whatever encounter it is important in relation to.
You would not use this exact text to report on an entire season, because the context of each race description is created by the races that precede it. That means that you need a season-wide context, and then you describe each of the races that follows. There are two goals: eliminate repetition of information, and eliminate anything that doesn’t contribute to the storyline defined by the context.
Similarly, a campaign-wide synopsis of an RPG would be structured differently. There might be multiple plot threads, and you would describe each of them in succession, drawing information from different adventures as it becomes relevant – then polishing so that it flows as a narrative. Anything irrelevant to the current adventure should be eliminated as redundant because the adventure provides the context of the synopsis, whose purpose is to refresh the player’s recollection of the things that they need to know to participate in this particular adventure. The summation of the past that goes with this adventure should not be the same as that for the next adventure. Anything else that you need to remind them of gets mentioned at the time it becomes relevant, within the adventure.
The Commentary Application
When it comes to sports on TV, there is poor commentary, good commentary, great commentary, and fantastic commentary.
Poor Commentary tells you exactly what you can see and explains nothing. It’s completely redundant. Most baseball games that I’ve seen have exceptionally poor commentary, full of technical terms and abbreviations that aren’t explained, or worse yet, simply using the numbers without giving the term that identifies what they mean. I’ve also seen some motorsport commentary that falls into the same trap.
Good Commentary tells you about events that you can’t see, or haven’t seen, and reminds you of things that you might have forgotten as they become relevant, and doesn’t confuse the listener. You might not understand everything if you don’t follow the sport regularly – is 0.7 RBI a good number? What does a track temperature of 50°C mean? – but over time you can come to associate a context with the raw statistics.
Great Commentary tells you what the significance might be of what you can see, analyzes situations and provides insights and meaning. It assumes that you have eyes and that the time spent on-air can be better spent delivering something more than poor commentary, then fills up the odd corners with ‘good commentary’ and ‘color’. The better the commentary, the less of it will be ‘poor commentary’ – which sounds completely obvious, but I mean it quite literally. The distinction crystallized for me when Australian television broadcaster SBS first got the rights to televise the Ashes series being played that year in England; the commentators analyzed what the ball was doing, how that related to the positions adopted by the fielders, what specifically the bowler would be trying to achieve in order to take advantage of those field positions, how all that related to the abilities and characteristics of the batsman, and how the batsman should respond. When you watched the game, you understood everything that was going on – at least, you did if you knew anything about test cricket.
Fantastic Commentary does everything that Great Commentary does but enables you to understand what you are seeing even if you have never watched it before. The best example I have ever seen comes from the first movie in the Major League franchise (the others come close but fall just a little short of the mark) – at every point, the commentary enables you to understand what you are seeing even if you don’t know the game. The commentary throughout the Mighty Ducks movie series also approaches this standard. Quite obviously, all of these examples have the benefit of being pre-scripted, so that the ‘commentators’ knew exactly what was going to happen on-screen and had time to refine and polish their scripts accordingly. Does that make it impossible to achieve in a live-sport context? Not at all; I’ve seen it in motorsport commentary (Martin Brundle and Neil Crompton are both capable of achieving this standard on a good day, and reliably hit the “great commentary” level, in my opinion), and some Test Cricket and Soccer World Cup commentary also meets the mark. No doubt, if I watched more sports, I would have other examples. So it is achievable.
Can it be learned, or do some have the ability while others simply don’t? The case of Craig Baird, who co-hosted Formula One races on Network Ten/One in Australia a couple of years back, argues the former. His commentary was judged against the standard set by the aforementioned Crompton, and fell woefully short at first – “Bad Commentary” at its worst. By mid-season, though, and to his credit, he had improved to the point of delivering “Good Commentary” on occasion, and by the end of the season, he was doing so reliably and occasionally reaching the “Great Commentary” standard.
So, let’s relate all this to RPGs. To some extent, you have the Movie Advantage in that at least some narrative content can be pre-scripted. Most of it, though, will be the equivalent of live sports commentary. When pre-scripted, your descriptions of events should achieve the “Great Commentary” standard as a matter of course, and the rest of the time, “Good Commentary” should be the minimum standard that you will accept from yourself.
It’s not easy to do. Clarity, context, emotive, rich in detail, specific, lively, and making sure that your audience – the players – understand exactly what’s going on, is a lot to achieve without waffling on for far too long. You won’t hit these marks every time, but they should be your goals.
The “Scoring” Application
With every encounter that takes place – using the term in its broadest possible sense – you should always know what constitutes a “win” for both the players/PCs and NPCs involved, and what they can do to achieve it.
“The Win” might be the players learning a particular fact, or gaining access to a particular region of the map, or rendering an enemy/trap unable to impede the PCs’ progress, or successfully performing an action, or getting one step closer to solving a mystery. There are many more possible “victory conditions” than there are types of encounter.
As GM, it’s part of your job to make sure that the players have the information they need to be able to decide ‘the victory conditions’ (it’s part of their job to actually convert this potential into reality).
It’s also part of your job to make sure that this is achieved in an interesting and engaging way. Quite often, you will need to make it more difficult to achieve – a task that is much easier if you know what they should be trying to get out of the encounter.
If things don’t go according to plan, knowing what the PCs should have been trying to achieve enables you to provide alternative routes should they be needed, and knowing why that constitutes a “victory condition” allows you to assess the important consequences of the failure.
In particular, you want to make sure that no failure is game-ending. Not even a TPK should stop the music!
Ensuring that every encounter has a definable “Victory Condition” and that the players are capable of identifying that in advance means that every encounter propels the story forwards.
This is especially important when it comes to random encounters or encounters that happen just because two individuals happen to be in the same place at the same time.
A PC is passing through a marketplace? To bring the scene to life, there needs to be an encounter of some kind – even if it’s just a merchant trying to interest the PC in his wares. If you don’t know in advance what constitutes a ‘victory’ for the merchant and what a ‘victory’ for the PC look like, you will have to make up details on the spot – and that’s how game-breaking devices and plot-breaking mistakes can worm their way into your campaign.
The Perspective Application
When emotions run hot – and they will, from time to time – deliberately using a sporting metaphor can undercut the emotion and lend perspective. “They have definitely scored a touchdown at your expense”. “He’s hit a home run, I’m afraid.” “The score is 40-love, but it’s not too late for a comeback.”
There’s not a lot more to say about that, but the value and importance of this capability should not be underestimated.
The Tactical Application
In some respects, this can be the most valuable benefit of them all. The sporting analogy permits you to think about how the opposition to the PCs can work together to become greater than the sum of their parts. It does this by giving the group an overall objective, formulating a strategy for success, and assigning roles within that strategy to each member of the group based on abilities that they posses.
For example, let’s say that you have a Giant Spider, a pair of Minotaurs, and a Beholder. Your objective is to get past the PCs to a lever on the far side of the room with a creature that has arms – it’s no good getting there with the Beholder! Pulling the lever will open some floodgates and begin lowering the ceiling, drowning the PCs. Furthermore, neither Minotaur on its own is strong enough to withstand a single PC; they need to function as a pair.
You might decide that this is the equivalent of scoring a touchdown against the opposition team in a game of football, and send the Minotaurs wide while the Spider and Beholder keep the PCs occupied, and – in particular – use their abilities to prevent the PCs from going after the Minotaurs. Or you might decide that it could be more like kicking a goal in a game of football, because that can be done at range; the Beholder has to break up the ranks of the PCs, isolating one at a time, which the Minotaurs flank and pound on, while the Spider goes up the wall and across the ceiling until it gets close enough to the level to attach a line of webbing to it, activating the trap in the room. You can even start with one of these strategies and switch to another if it’s not working.
So the Beholder starts off with his Charm Person, and Flesh to Stone eye powers, each targeting a different PC. The Charmed person will be instructed to stand between the Minotaurs, while the Stone person stays exactly where they were, obviously. Depending on how many PCs there are, that could break the party up into three or four groups. The spider will climb the wall and drop some webbing on any PCs who are still mobile from the ceiling when it gets there before going for the goal. The Minotaurs will pound on any PC not affected who comes to the protection of the character who is Charmed, and only attack the charmed character when he has no defenders.
PC#1 makes his saving throw against the Charm but PC#2 is turned to stone. PCs 1 and 3 move to engage the Beholder, flinging dust into its eyes, while PC #4 shoots arrows or lightning bolts or whatever at the Spider. Clearly, the first strategy has failed. So the Beholder backs off to clear its eyes (difficult without hands) while the spider webs PC1, dropping onto them from the ceiling. PC 3 can pursue the Beholder, take on the Minotaurs alone, or try to protect PC1 from the spider. If he goes for the Beholder, the Minotaurs are free to reach the lever. If he stays to protect his teammate, it gives the Beholder a chance to recover and get back into the fight, while the Minotaurs are free to reach the lever. If he goes for the Minotaurs it will be two against one and they should win, removing the last obstacle between the NPC monsters and the lever.
Of course, there is still PC#4, who can continue to target the spider, who can shift his attention to the Beholder, or who can delay one of the Minotaurs. They will need to be careful not to let him target both of them. But one of the two should survive long enough to pull the lever and activate the trap. One way or another, then, you will get to up the ante.
Given that they haven’t drawn a lot of attention to themselves, attacking the Minotaurs is probably the least likely option. The PCs have blocked strategy #1 but in the process, have opened themselves up for Plan B. And you have an engaging narrative on your hands.
The Thrill Of The Chase
To be honest, the sports metaphor isn’t the only way you can approach some of these tasks. It might not even be the best way to handle some of them. But, if there is one task that RPGs seem to do universally poorly almost by default, that one is a chase.
There have been a lot of attempts to rectify this problem over the years.
I generated a method of creating a-game-within-a-game using playing cards, some years ago – it appeared in Roleplaying Tips issue #335 – which was better than nothing but I’ve never found any technique that really captured the essential thrill of a chase. Game mechanics are too slow and always take you out of the moment, and avoiding that problem always involves unsatisfactory translation of character skills and capabilities, and even if you solve that problem, you quickly find yourself resorting to chase clichés because it’s very hard to create original incidents that will distinguish one chase scene from another, and when you need a new incident every turn, you can quickly run out of ideas.
The sporting metaphor, the sporting analysis, can be the solution. Why? Because you can nick ideas from almost any sport. Steal the finish to Stephen Bradbury’s Olympic ice-skating victory. Steal the leap of a gymnast over the athletic horse. Steal the sidestep of a footballer avoiding a tackle. Steal the slide toward home of a baseball batter. Throw in a bunch of people firing arrows, or machine guns, or whatever is appropriate.
If you’re talking about a car chase, you may need to interpret these a little liberally, but the basic series of ideas is there. It increases the number of sources you can draw upon many-fold. And that alone justifies adding this storytelling technique to your repertoire.