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Exploring the Premise

There's an idea that comes up in movies called exploring the premise. Basically, once a movie has established what its premise is, a certain amount of time is spent showcasing what that means. If the premise of my movie is "Superintelligent hamsters wage a secret war against sinister snakes" then you can expect a certain amount of the movie being spent letting me see these hamsters running around doing superintelligent (and probably cute or humorous) things. We might see their great hidden tube city or watch their wacky antics, but whatever form it takes, this part of the movie is all about delivering on the promise of the premise and showing me some hamster action.

During this time the plot tends not to advance, conflicts are purely for show and characters are displayed but not developed. How long this stretch lasts varies from movie to movie, but it is often one of the most fun parts of the film as it tends to create moments of humor and spectacle of the sort that tend to end up in the trailer. It's also very important to the story because by taking us along on this ride, it helps us buy into the premise so we're more thoroughly invested when the time comes for the story to actually progress.


A few examples:
  • In Groundhog Day, once we've established that Bill Murray is reliving the same day over and over again, we get to spend time watching him do the things we would do; taking advantage of the situation, basking in consequence-less existence and having fun with it.
  • In Ghostbusters, once the guys have started their company, we get to see them bust slimer in the hotel. This doesn't advance the plot in any meaningful way, but it gives us a chance to see them do the things we came to the movie to see them do: bust ghosts!
  • In Spiderman, after Peter discovers his powers, we get to spend time with him testing them out and goofing around with them. This approach is common in a lot of superhero stories.

This is not always easy to spot in every movie, and some movies (especially high-action set pieces) may not be anything _but_ exploring the premise, but it's a common enough part of movies that it's pretty easy to spot once you start looking for it. Plus, as a bonus, it makes you think about what the movies premise is in the first place.

Every medium has their own version of this, though few do it as discretely as movies do. For books it sort of expands or contracts based on the author. Science fiction, especially classic science fiction, has many stories where the plot and characters are little more than the minimal window dressing necessary for the author to explore a particular premise. TV and comics thread it into their serial nature, with the exploration of premise usually reserved for origin stories, one-offs and non-arc episodes. This can be really hit or miss, though it often depends on how strong the premise is or, barring that, how strongly the fans buy into the premise.

RPG's are in a weird position because they're a hybrid between engaged and passive media (to say nothing of standalone vs. serial), but a game can definitely benefit from at least some time spent exploring the premise. Much as in a movie, this is time spend building up an investment so that the later elements of story have a lot more power. If your characters are a gang of thieves then you would be well served to have them pull off a heist that showcases their abilities and establish who they are before you move onto issues that call those abilities and identities into question.

This exploration is also something of a two-way street, since opportunity for the players to explore setting and roles is also an opportunity for players to externalize elements of the character they've been carrying around internally. This one-two punch can be a great source of fun.

All this hinges on the potentially unpopular assertion that not every scene needs to have a conflict. Yes, that flies in the face of conventional wisdom and stacks of books on writing and drama, but there it is. Conflict is essential to a good story, yes, but it is far from the only ingredient in the soup - a story with nothing but conflict is going to fall as flat as one with none at all.

The trick is that you cannot explore premise all the time any more than you can drive to conflict all the time. I mean, you can, and there are successful games that do both, but you can usually tell that success comes more from the players than the structure of the game in those cases. Striking a balance between these two is definitely more art than science, and every table should find its own balance. It's entirely reasonable to have a single conflict that frames a lot of exploration (such as being blackmailed [conflict] into raiding a dungeon [exploration]) but it's equally reasonable to have the bulk of the game driven by conflict with only one or two scenes that explore premise in order to recharge batteries for the subsequent conflicts.

A lot hinges on what your players do when they explore the premise - if they're engaged by it (perhaps because they are tactically engaged in fights or perhaps because they use the exploration to unearth issues that fuel future play) then it's hard to go wrong. Ride it out, and when interest and engagement start to flag then you can start throwing conflicts into the mix.

The reverse is a little more nuanced. Certainly, if your players are getting fatigued by the conflicts, you can step back and explore premise for a while, but if you're an engaging GM or have excited players, they may not grow fatigued until the game is done. That might seem to be an argument for never "wasting time" with exploration of premise, but that overlooks the benefit unique to gaming: because the players are changing the premise, you need to give them opportunities to see the impact of their actions. At its simplest this means letting players taste the fruits of their victories, but more broadly, this is a function of the kind of conflicts you're throwing at players. If they're trivial conflicts that change nothing, your players will probably get tired quick, so that's self-correcting, but if they're meaningful conflicts that produce meaningful change, players need a chance to stop and appreciate that change. They need a chance to explore what those changes mean and re-establish a baseline so that when they get back into conflict it remains meaningful to them.

That said, it's not always easy to do because it's easy for a GM to lose track of the premise. If you simply treat an opportunity to explore the premise as an opportunity to explore everything then you will very quickly end up in the weeds. Always keep in mind what promise you are delivering on, and if that's not where things are going, then you've got every reason to bust out a conflict and get back on the roller coaster (that is, unless your players actions reveal to you a premise you hadn't considered).


I think exploration of premise has gotten a bit of a bad rap in some gaming circles. It's not as sexy (or simple) as conflict, and it's easy to dismiss as dungeon crawling or scenery chewing, but there's a reason that it still has a large role in the way that people actually play RPGs, since it speaks most directly to what is unique about the hobby. So I want to flag it as a useful tool, if one that is perhaps a bit trickier to use than it may first appear.

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Comments

( 39 comments — Leave a comment )
oletheros
Feb. 3rd, 2009 11:23 pm (UTC)
believe it or not, but this concept plays heavily into the writing of comics as well. (most of your posts on this topic are cross-relevant, but this was especially so.)
macklinr
Feb. 3rd, 2009 11:28 pm (UTC)
I will happily take the blame for this.

I'll also have real comments following.
boymonster
Feb. 3rd, 2009 11:29 pm (UTC)
One strange kind of issue I have noticed in many traditional supers games is that the players are constantly asked to test (question/challenge) the established truths of their characters. If you are playing Superman, you may be asked to make checks to see if you can fly faster than a speeding bullet or jump over buildings. See, I don't know if you SHOULD have those things pulled into question, since those are Superman's thing.

That's why I think I see where you're at. Until Superman has to worry about the red kryptonite or the villain using magic or the escaped Phantom Zone criminals, his schticks are going to work. The game needs to be about more than that, and so when you're done exploring your premise you can see what that "more than this" is.
rob_donoghue
Feb. 3rd, 2009 11:44 pm (UTC)
My growing position is that good stories are told about normal people overcoming extraordinary challenges or extraordinary people overcoming _mundane_ challenges, but very rarely is the reverse true.
bruceb
Feb. 4th, 2009 04:38 am (UTC)
Tangentially, Masamune Shirow commented that he thinks there's good storytelling in the clash of characters and their foreground and background. Hence Appleseed, a dark, grim story in the midst of utopia, and Dominion Tank Police, a light-hearted romp in the midst of dystopic chaos. Not the same thing you're talking about, but a related dimension.

debela
Feb. 4th, 2009 01:32 pm (UTC)
In my amateur spouse phrasing: two things that don't fit each other. (Peanut butter and evil peanut butter!)
renatoram.wordpress.com
Feb. 3rd, 2009 11:34 pm (UTC)
Another factor, that tends to get overlooked (I think) especially during the first forays into "hey, cool, let's do this conflict driven game" thing, is that if you never have those premise exploration scenes you're generally less likely to be emotionally attached and connected to your character.

In DRYH, for example, a con game/scenario will generally be a mad rollercoaster ride of conflict after conflict... but for a "true" game at home I'd much prefer letting the pace tune itself to the table, and have more "interstitial" exploration scenes (color?)

Actually, so much so that even some of my con games had premise exploration scenes interspersed between a mad chase and a figth... and those were often memorable moments.
rob_donoghue
Feb. 3rd, 2009 11:37 pm (UTC)
Juggling it for a con game definitely takes a deft touch.
renatoram.wordpress.com
Feb. 3rd, 2009 11:48 pm (UTC)
And in fact I consider it a constant learning exercise... it also depends heavily on the "feeling" I get from the table (being generally strangers).

But yeah, the games that *had* those moments... I could see the players' eyes just light up. Post game comments confirmed for example that a scene with a "cuts-on-the-face seller" (long story ^__^ ) at the Bazaar (with little consequence to the "plot/action" side) stayed powerfully in the player's minds.

OTOH, there have been very successful "rollercoaster rides" of conflict after conflict. Now I now wonder... weren't those conflicts also exploring the premise, though?
rob_donoghue
Feb. 3rd, 2009 11:53 pm (UTC)
I think there's a point where they come together, or at least get very close, but getting there is well into the realm of personal experience, I think.

That said, I also did not really address low key vs. intense conflict. Very low key conflicts, or conflicts that are not about what they're about can really blur the line, but low key takes more work to do well than an in your face approach.

Edited at 2009-02-03 11:54 pm (UTC)
renatoram.wordpress.com
Feb. 4th, 2009 12:09 am (UTC)
Got it.
So yeah, the example I cited (the bazaar) had zero conflict: in the same vein I often insert some "sightseeing" element (it's a showcase of the Mad City just as much as it is of the system, after all) that helps estabilish the mood.

A stray thought: have you read/heard Serial (Incarnadine Press)? The victim's scenes seem kind of a strange marriage of "premise exploration" (as in: everyday scenes from the potential victim's lives) with a conflict in there somewhere regarding their achieving (or getting closer) their hope. While there IS a conflict, eventually, I feel the most potent thing of that scenes is that they are custom crafted so that you not only explore the premise, but get attachment to these that were just names, which all of a sudden thanks to the "just life" scenes are more real, and you really, really want to catch the killer in time to let them live their life.

Enough rambly thougths, it's awfully late here in Italy, time to go to bed.
joshroby
Feb. 4th, 2009 02:24 am (UTC)
All this hinges on the potentially unpopular assertion that not every scene needs to have a conflict.
One place where the wheels go off the cart in this territory is that, in roleplaying games, there are often conflicts that don't ever resort to dice. I'd hold it true that all scenes need* dramatic conflict, but that need not always be mechanical conflict. And the deeper appreciation of that truth is that sometimes you don't realize what the dramatic and non-mechanical conflict was until three scenes later.

* "need" in an "in order to look vaguely like the fiction with which we are familiar and often use as a guide for our roleplaying games" sort of way.
mr_orgue
Feb. 4th, 2009 02:39 am (UTC)
I think this is right on - but:

sometimes you don't realize what the dramatic and non-mechanical conflict was until three scenes later

this is, I think, really important. I tend to locate a lot of the energy in conflicts in their consequences. Big conflicty games tend to push my characters through massive change, fast, because I always find the characters changing in response to the big deal. But lower key conflicts (to use Rob's frame elsewhere in comments) often have low-key consequences that don't properly manifest for a while, until several of them have built up. So the way I figure it, you get Rob's point about space to explore, while retaining the dramatic confict that you talk about.
rob_donoghue
Feb. 4th, 2009 02:48 am (UTC)
I'd counterargue that there is a place for exposition, display and other important things which are not based on conflict. Not all the time, of course, but they have a role.

More subtly you have the issue of false conflict. To tap the ghostbusters example, one could say that there's a conflict regarding whether or not they will succeed, but the reality is success is a given, so it is merely the trappings of a conflict used to frame the scene. Differentiating that (and other, more subtle gradation of conflict) does leave me inclined to say that there is some threshold below which the conflict is not really a conflict. (Curiously, this is the one arena where mechanical conflict is more easil judged than actual conflict, but that's a bit of a tangent).

But even so, I'm not arguing against the importance of conflict - it's an essential part of stories and play. I'll fully concede that in a well constructed scene there is often non-obvious conflict. But none of that argues that _every_ scene must have a conflict to be successful, and I'd go further to say there's nothing _wrong_ with that, especially given the many different yardsticks for success.
joshroby
Feb. 4th, 2009 02:59 am (UTC)
First, false conflict, absolutely.

Secondly: "a place for exposition, display and other important things which are not based on conflict." I'm thinking the "based on" in there is a key lynchpin. The assumption that conflicts are always and inevitably the foundation of all other things, including exposition and character development, is almost certainly faulty. Certainly there is space for conflict that is parallel, but not foundational, to character development, say. There's a lot of mileage to be gotten from character development that's a direct consequence of conflict (hello, Dogs!), but perhaps there is unmined potential in conflict that is a direct consequence of character development. Or swap in whatever elements you like.

Conflict has been central to (indie) game design for a number of historical reasons, but perhaps there will come a time to step beyond that simplicity and count conflict as one tool among many, rather than the primary tool and the primary goal as well. Or maybe we'll find that conflict is and always will be the heart of things. Who knows? ;)
boymonster
Feb. 4th, 2009 04:22 am (UTC)
So how does one frame a scene that has no inherent conflict and make it interesting?
bruceb
Feb. 4th, 2009 04:54 am (UTC)
Delight in the use of one's capabilities. Learning something. Having time to visit with people you like, or that you'd like to know better. Demonstrating your mastery of something for the enjoyment of another. Being helpful, or being helped. Seeing beautiful or sublime sights. Making a long-wanted acquisition for which you're now entirely prepared. Sharing a time of grief, as part of an ongoing mourning. Beginning a new project in hope and confidence.
joshroby
Feb. 4th, 2009 07:33 am (UTC)
So how does one frame a scene that has no inherent conflict and make it interesting?

Not what I said. ;)

Scenes can do a whole ton of things, most of which are not "see the resolution of a conflict." The thing is, they can do any number of those things and resolve a conflict at the same time. In fact, a single scene can do five or six things all at once. To assume that the conflict in the scene is the most important of those five or six is a mistake.

In other words, you might as well ask, "How does one frame a scene that has no character development and make it interesting?" or "How does one frame a scene that has no plot advancement and make it interesting?" There's all sorts of stuff you can do in a scene; why assume that one of those must be conflict?
boymonster
Feb. 4th, 2009 06:05 pm (UTC)
I think because "conflict drives the story" is such a mantra among writers and those who teach writing. The trick is acknowledging when this is true and when it is unnecessary.
rob_donoghue
Feb. 4th, 2009 12:50 pm (UTC)
Precisely my thought. And as you say, the hope is that it is these non-conflict elements which make the conflicts better when the wheel turns (and by extension, these moments of reflection that make the impact of the conflicts more meaningful) in a virtuous cycle.
bruceb
Feb. 4th, 2009 04:58 am (UTC)
"False conflict" is a good handle for something I've tussled with several times and feel I have a lot of room to work on. I'm thinking that in some cases the issue is the degree or quality of success, and that lurking in the bowels of the Storyteller system is a pretty nice framework for representing it, but I never take this thought very far.

rob_donoghue
Feb. 4th, 2009 12:22 pm (UTC)
Yeah, there's something big here, but I don't yet have a shape for it. It's easy to point to - in D&D even if you're sure to win a fight it may use up soem amount of your resources, and the ultimate impact of that is not obvious - and it's clear that's a distinguishing mark of games, but I don't know what to _do_ with it yet.
mr_orgue
Feb. 4th, 2009 02:36 am (UTC)
Random thought in response: witness Orpheus, the whole core book of which was about exploring that premise so that when the crazy events of the first supplement happened you had all the basics down. (Orpheus, of course, was explicitly based on classic movie storytelling structures.)



rob_donoghue
Feb. 4th, 2009 02:49 am (UTC)
Further evidence that Orpheus was composed of pure awesome.
nmccoy
Feb. 4th, 2009 08:29 am (UTC)
Submitted to the Rob Donoghue advice column:
I'm DMing a 4e game on Fridays. I have an incredibly taxing school schedule during the week; social gaming is my primary source of recovery. None of the players have prior experience with 4e, but all but one are 3.5e players. So far I've had an incredibly lame tutorial encounter with kobolds, and a less-lame encounter with kobolds and fire beetles that dropped the paladin and warlord (after a clumsy you-all-fail-to-meet-in-a-tavern, then-some-guy-comes-in-wailing-about-scaly-things-stealing-his-goats opening). After two encounters I ran with fire beetles nearly killing party members, I think their blast attack is rather overpowered for their level, but I digress.

I have a very difficult time roleplaying NPCs well for any length of time, and am generally more comfortable as a player than as a DM. I quite like a good story, but the primary draw of D&D for me has always been the delicious tactical combat and spectacular heroics.

How best can I Bring The Awesome, and help my players do the same? Relevant constraints:
- Relatively novice GM, proficient with the 4e mechanics, not terribly comfortable running NPCs in a non-combat situation
- Mostly experienced D&D players (one novice), all new to the 4e system
- Level 1 party, consisting of Paladin, Warlock, Wizard, and Warlord; possibly to add a fifth party member
- Low amount of time/energy available for preparation

In my other game (different players) we're in the habit of having Karma Points, explicitly an outside-the-rules construct, earned by either Bringing The Awesome or a run of miserable luck; they can be cashed in for a certain amount of leniency from the DM; for example, "[after rolling and critting a minion] Um, can I switch who my first and second attacks were against?" A karma point will turn the answer from an uncomfortable "No" into a "Sure".

Anyway, a few concise tips would be appreciated. And thanks for writing awesome stuff once again.
samldanach
Feb. 4th, 2009 11:55 am (UTC)
Re: Submitted to the Rob Donoghue advice column:
I'm not Rob, but...

Rule #1: Talk to your players. Ask them what they want, what they like, what they don't like. This is "collaborative" storytelling, after all. Don't think you have to do all the work.

Rule #2: Relax. Trying to make your game epic right out of the gate will generally backfire. Give yourself time to gain your own experience as a GM. It's okay to make a couple "B-movie" campaigns before trying to pull off a LOTR.

Rule #3: Stealing is okay. Feel free to grab scenarios, NPCs, and encounters from all around you. Disguising them is often good, as it prevents the players from losing immersion. Mixing and matching is also good, grabbing a scenario from Lethal Weapon but using characters from House. If you have trouble with NPCs, try playing a few very one-dimensional people that you are already familiar with, like the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld.

IMHO, a mechanic like your "karma points" is one of the best things any game system can bring. It is simultaneously a way for the GM to use positive reinforcement to shape the action at the table, and a way for the players to make sure the dice don't end up getting in the way of the story.
rob_donoghue
Feb. 4th, 2009 11:57 am (UTC)
Re: Submitted to the Rob Donoghue advice column:
With the caveat that these are off the top of my head before coffee:

1) Stick with what works - if your group likes Karma points, then keep them. Our group tends to use action points to this end with the following rules tweak: They can only be used once per scene for an extra action, but they can always be used for a reroll or other misc. bonuses. How your players earn them will probably depend upon your personal tastes. For obvious reasons I favor a system that works loosely like aspects (where an aspect is effectively a feat that lets you pick another feat when you buy it) but something like fanmail or even just GM fiat could work.

2. Use minions liberally (especially if you have a wizard), and keep elites and bosses at a level very close to the PCs. PCs can usually take on a regular monster a few levels above them, but an elite or boss who is that much higher can either be lethal or just really, really slow.

3. This one is experimental, but apparently the WOTC guys do it themselves, so it's got some merit - halve the hit points of all the monsters. It tends to simply speed up the fights, and that can kind of rock.

4. For me the slowest part of prep is transcibing stats, and for this I got a PDF of the monster manual and I take screenshots, clip out the stat blocks and put them in a word document along with notes for the scene.

5. Aggressively reskin monsters. Just find some creatures that are the right level then just change their descriptions and the descriptions of their powers to suit your needs. This is _so_ much faster than tryign to find just the right monsters.

6. Every fight scene needs a gimmick, but it generally needs only one gimmick. This sounds hard to plan for, but the reality is that if you're liberal with the terrain it tends to just happen, and it ends up looking like you cunningly planned it all along. So just use a lot of terrain, then have your bad guys try to take advantage of it, generally by using cover or by forcing the PCs to cross rough terrain.
samldanach
Feb. 4th, 2009 11:23 am (UTC)
So, would the dreaded "random encounter" count as premise exploration? Allowing the characters to strut their stuff and try out odd combat tactics in relatively low-impact scenarios?

Is this the general purpose of side quests? Those are pretty analagous to one-off episodes in TV series.

Do you see this happen much in CRPGs or MMOs?
rob_donoghue
Feb. 4th, 2009 12:47 pm (UTC)
If the premise is more tactical than not, then yes, absolutely. Much the same way that roleplaying the trip to the blacksmith qualifies if that's where the premise of a particular game lies. (Though it gets interesting in that a single game may have both premises at the table).

But yes, side quests usually exist to highlight some facet of the game or another (to show off some part of the setting, highlight some element of the rules or explore the background of a character or plot element) so more often than not, yes, they absolutely qualify.

You do get this a lot in CRPGs, but it can be very weird since it's gotten skewed by the Japanese design principle of requiring a million zillion subquests to gain the uber-weapon, so it's gotten a lot less interesting and more frustrating as it become more about minigames than anything else. That said, this is usually the "disk 4 exploration" phase of a CRPG - all the stuff you can run around and do while you should be facing the big boss.

MMOs are (to my experience) less good at this, but they still have elements of it, even if they're usually just in big blocks of text.
wordwill
Feb. 4th, 2009 11:33 am (UTC)
Movie premises and game premises work differently. In D&D, when you're doing straight-up dungeoneering, you're exploring the premise.

In a movie, you almost have to have changed the premise by the end to get the stakes that audiences supposedly covet. (I'm cutting along the line between the movie premise and the franchise premise here, though.)

Let us consider the difference between exploring the premise of the game, the campaign, or the characters. As is so often the case with RPGs, we're looking at multiple agendas interacting unless we are explicitly not. Plenty of players are happy to get together for a hours each week and do nothing but explore the premise of a game.

I don't agree that you have to choose between premise and conflict for your scenes, though. The conflict between the adventurers and the monsters is inherent in the premise — no reason to choose between premise and conflict there. I mean, how do you explore the premise of D&D (the game) without an encounter to play?

A big part of the difference here is simply the stakes. The premise of Ghostbusters gets shown off when they bust Slimer, but there's certainly conflict there. When Murray does as he pleases in Groundhog Day, there are (weak) conflicts — he just happens to win every one of them handily to make the jokes work and to demonstrate the larger conflict of the movie.

I don't think Peter playing with his powers does explore the premise of Spider-Man, really. Spider-Man isn't about a kid who has superpowers, it's about a kid with superpowers who fights crime. The scene when Spidey fights thugs for the first time, and then kisses Mary Jane upside down, that's basically a dramatization of the whole Spider-Man premise, right there.
rob_donoghue
Feb. 4th, 2009 12:41 pm (UTC)
So, right off the bat let me concede I'm using a narrow definition of exploration of premise here, something closer akin to what Snyder calls "Messing around". I went with the narrower definition for exactly the reason you point out - the movie and game definitions differ enough that at best they can usefully inform on one another rather than truly map. Defined more properly, you're totally right that a conflict can explore the premise.

But to be clear, my concern is not symmetrical. I don't think there are many voices out there saying there should be exploration with no conflict, rather I am taking issue with the idea that there must always be a conflict to make a game effective.

The examples actually highlight this pretty well, and at least partly also reveal the problem of mapping from movie (Though you're right about the part I left out of spiderman - the Superhero messing around also needs to include saving a kitten from a tree, so to speak). The idea of a false conflict is a lot muddier in a film (or any other fiction) because, on some level, they're all false conflicts. There is the appearance of conflict, but it's not like the script is going to change, so the outcome is never really in question.

For games the bar is higher (or at least placed differently) - a conflict really _can_ change the direction of things, and because of that there is a nebulous middle category of conflicts that look like conflicts and would qualify as conflicts in a movie, but which only have one outcome in play. These are made even more fuzzy by the fact that there's no clear cutoff - it's just a narrowing band where the number of options get smaller and smaller. To illustrate:

1) A fair fight could be seen as a true conflict because there are many possible outcomes.

2) An unfair fight (heroes vs. mooks) is kind of a bogus conflict (in gaming terms) because there's only one outcome. It has the trappings of a conflict, but it's just a show.

3) Talking to someone for information is a muddy situation - it may be certain the players will get the information (which suggests no conflict) but the players may get more or less information or create a problem for themselves, so there is a narrow range of outcomes, so there's a case that there's at least weak conflict.

This produces a weird distribution, since some of the best play comes out of reasonably narrowed scenario, but there's a tipping point where it narrows enough to flip over to railroading and false conflict. Like most things, it's hard to pin down exactly where that happens.

All of which is to say, you're right, but the flipside is that conflicts are also different between games and movies, and in a game I can point to false conflicts and weak-sauce conflicts and treat them as not really being conflicts at all.
eskemp
Feb. 4th, 2009 03:34 pm (UTC)
I wonder if premise exploration is the draw for the average player. Plot being all well and good, but if you roll up your heroic 1st-level fighter, what you're saying is that you're interested in exploring the premise of heroically hitting things with a sword. Certainly there are plenty of players out there who couldn't care less about the plot — the premise is what brought them to the table in the first place.

I wonder how true that is for players high and low. The premise is what you start building in your head as you brainstorm a character. It's what you "know" about the game, and therefore exploring the premise would imply that it's players doing what they signed up for in the first place. Plot can then arrive and make it a story, but the premise — complete with conflicts that are solely for show rather than advancing an overall plot — is what makes it a game.

I'd say exploring the premise is really important for players as a whole, at least those with a few escapist bones in their bodies. It's a little sad to think of it getting a bad rap.
rob_donoghue
Feb. 5th, 2009 01:11 am (UTC)
In fact, I'm almost sure that's what most people get into it for! What's more, plot and drama and the tools that go along with them really exist (in a lot of contexts) to simply make that work _better_. I think the drift comes when those tools start being used as a replacement.
judd_sonofbert
Feb. 4th, 2009 05:29 pm (UTC)
Setting the tone...
I don't think every scene needs a conflict, not at all.

I think we see these kinds of scenes in White Wolf's old Prelude scenes and more recently in accomplishments in Dogs in the Vineyard, which have a conflict but it can't be to-the-death, it is only there to initiate change in your character as the game begins.

I think a whole lot of premise establishment comes pre-play: "Let's play a space opera where we are galactic assassins sent by the Empress of the Galaxy!"

"Rock!"

I'm going to read through some of the 31 comments and marinate for a while on this.

Thanks, thought provoking as always.
judd_sonofbert
Feb. 4th, 2009 05:34 pm (UTC)
Re: Setting the tone...
Also, while talking to Jim DelRosso about this very topic he mentioned a good point, in RPG's, these kinds of scenes where you are establishing a premise can be good times to learn the rules. I'll let him talk more about that in his own post.
rob_donoghue
Feb. 5th, 2009 01:12 am (UTC)
Re: Setting the tone...
As ever, Jim speaks wisdom.
wyldelf
Feb. 4th, 2009 06:32 pm (UTC)
I don't buy that this exists in movies without conflict, plot, or character advancement (or at least good movies, like your examples - I have no doubts, and have witnessed it, in bad movies).

In Groundhog Day, there are three big set pieces where he plays with the premise. In one, he's playing with the rules, pushing the boundaries, revealing lots of character in his unsatisfying relationships and superficial victories. In another, he turns these techniques to winning the woman he really wants, which seems to work, but ultimately fails, because he's not being true to himself, this advances plot and character. Lastly, we have him trying to get out of the trap by killing himself, this is both character and plot showing how frustrated he is and hinting at how long he might actually be stuck in this time loop. These all feed into the resolution, which is a perfect day of self improvement realized and constant good deeds, not trying to impress anyone except himself.

In Ghostbusters, what we have is an establishment of character, how these guys work as a team. The whole hotel section is filled with character development with these guys setting out to prove themselves. To start off: we have Venkman's lack of seriousness resulting in his assault, Ray's over exuberance doing more harm than good, and Egon's obsession over the minute details that distracts him from any real discoveries. But then, when they start working together, we see Venkman's cool translate into leadership, Ray's excitement turns into tactics, and Egon's attention to detail and knowledge becomes guiding logistics. It's all done showing how Ghostbusting works, exploring the premise, which sets up the montage to follow, but it also informs our understanding of their characters for the rest of the movie.

I think Spiderman is closest to pure exploration of the premise, in large part that's what we love about Superhero movies, the enjoyment that could be had with superhuman abilities. But even still, Peter's exploration of his abilities reveals a lot of character (he's still got his sense of humor) and advances some plot (mainly getting us from high school kid to superhero and how that process happens). Peter's exploration is very different than Tony Stark's or Bruce Wayne's. Differences that we can chalk up more to character and plot than we can to their difference in powers.

Now, I recognize that premise is getting explored, and that's largely why these parts of the movies are some of the most enjoyable. But it's not as an alternative to character and plot. It's layered on top of. Sometimes that layer is very thick, sometimes not, but it's always a veneer in the best stories.
rob_donoghue
Feb. 5th, 2009 01:07 am (UTC)
I admit I picked some slightly harder bits for illustration. Really, the montages tend to be clearer examples and I think they hold up the idea more strongly.
wyldelf
Feb. 5th, 2009 01:44 am (UTC)
That's what I was going to suggest first too, but I couldn't think of any that also didn't serve some other purpose. But to step back, I might just be splitting hairs. Just as the best plot scenes have conflict and also develop character and so forth, the best montages while progressing character or plot, are usually primarily revels in the premise.

Either way, I am interested in systems to fold the revelry into the game that's fun and engaging. 4E mentions ways to use it, as does SotC, and they are usually fun, but they do require those other elements (conflict usually or the sense of it, maybe plot or character depending on the system)
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