catastrophe in the first person

So yesterday I blurted out this twitter-splort as a sort of sub-tweet related to someone asking about what could happen to engage characters when an asteroid station’s reactor malfunctions. I gave them direct and I hope useful advice but then I did this.

Something that doesn’t get explored enough for my tastes in RPGs: confusion. In real life confusion + baseline fear creates some of the most terrifying and difficult to navigate circumstances.

When something big and terrible happens in an RPG often we start with full knowledge of it. This is a missed opportunity. Often the outward signs of a disaster for someone not immediately killed are ambiguous and subtly terrifying.

There are lots of emergency people and they don’t know what to do. People are running in multiple directions (no obvious origin of danger). Things that always work are working sporadically or not at all. There are sounds that aren’t alarming but you’ve never heard them before.

There are dead and injured and it’s not obvious what killed or injured them. There are people demanding you help who don’t know how you can help. Visibility is suddenly restricted or obliterated. Alarming smells are suddenly commonplace (gas, smoke, rubber, metal)

But most importantly these haphazard inputs are all you have. They don’t assemble into a certainty as to what’s going on. They might not even help. If you are in this situation you are either:

* leaving

* investigating so you can understand

* helping the immediately in danger

A fair question is, how do you evoke this in a game. Now my first thought is that this isn’t mechanical in the strict sense — it doesn’t need points or clocks or dice. I mean, you can employ those things, but there are more general techniques you can bring to bear.

Maybe it’s obvious, but if a real person is terrified because things are uncertain and confusing and dangerous then evoking the mood for players guiding a character through the disaster might benefit from the same thing: lack of information. This is of course in direct conflict with the idea that players should have full information and play their characters as though they don’t. Sometimes that’s the right thing and lets mechanisms already present engage, but it doesn’t establish mood. So what I’ll suggest is that whether or not you eventually draw back the curtain to allow the mechanism to play out, at least start with limited information.

So consider this asteroid reactor failure:

Ref: You’re buying noodles at a swing-bar when suddenly there’s a lurch. The air goes opaque with dust or something and your noodles fly out of your hands, whirling across the open space of the Trade Void. You hear screaming and you can’t see shit.

This is where I start: you don’t need to evoke confusion or simulate. Start with the actual confusion. Players will probably start looking for information. Before they get too much out, follow up. This makes things urgent.

Ref: People are rushing past you, just grey shapes in this fog, bumping into you. They are heading in different directions and are incoherent. Except for the one begging for help from across the ‘Void. You find your clothes are smeared with blood from someone who passed you.

Players are now in a position where they have little information, no easy way to get more information, and yet a motivation to either leave, help, or investigate.

I think it’s a critical technique to know and use as ref: to step back from the simulation engine and use the information itself to establish mood and urgency. It’s a story telling technique, not a game mechanism. When you rush or interrupt people, they get anxious. When they don’t have enough information they get the Fear. When they know the danger is real but don’t know the direction that is dangerous, they get careful.

The problem with this is that it’s not safe. When you try to get real emotions at the table you are treading on dangerous ground. If you’re going to attempt to directly evoke fear and anxiety in people, they better all be on board for that. And even if they feel like they are, it’s helpful to have an out like an X-Card or a Script Change. Make sure everyone knows what they are in for and have a way to opt out. If I use fast random information and overtalking people in order to establish confusion and anxiety, I’m doing a real thing to real people and you bear a great deal of responsibility when you do that. Someone not prepared for it would have every right to get angry about it. So tread lightly and talk first.

The upside is that the mood is easier to get into, easier to react within context, easier to build scenes that are memorable for the emotion and tension.

Most of our catastrophe images have context because we are looking back on the event through lens of investigation and analysis. But what could you conclude from this if it’s all you knew? A vast cloud of thick grey is descending on you and the noise is tremendous and people are screaming. Context is a luxury.

One level above this is how to analyze situations in order to understand how to place someone in them convincingly. If you’ve never been in mortal danger, you might have no idea what features of that terror are easily conveyed. But there are things that are generally true as I indicated in those tweets:

Low information: initially you know nothing except the effects you see.

Low visibility: bad things often create visual confusion. Fog, smoke, tear gas, crowds — your ability to see what is going on is constrained, so don’t describe everything.

High emotions: people are screaming, crying, begging. Not all of them are in danger or physical distress but almost all of them are overwhelmed by the confusion. You can’t immediately tell which are which.

Blood: Even just second order injuries (people getting banged about by the confused other people) generate a lot of blood after a few minutes. And you can’t tell who’s badly injured from who just has a broken nose. Or who’s covered in someone elses blood.

Low air: whether the air is filled with Bad Things or you’re overcrowded or you’re just hyperventilating it always feels like there is not enough air.

On the upside you will also usually find pockets of local organization: there’s usually someone trying to help and even if they have no idea what’s going on this will tend to form a nucleus of organization: people in this situation are attracted down the confusion gradient. They’ll walk right into a crossfire of bullets if it’s easier to see and breathe there.

There’s also usually a coordinated response very rapidly and that forced organization defuses confusion rapidly. The longer it takes to get there the more certain people are that it’s never coming, which amplifies confusion rapidly.

Presenting these things fall into the category of technique for me. You can mechanize some of them I suppose, but I think you only want to do that if you want your game to be about catastrophe. If you just want your particular game night to deal with a catastrophe, you want to hone some skills for presenting the catastrophic.

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