Friday, 22 January 2016

American Gaming Story

I'm late to the party that is American Horror Story, but I'm a fan. I love a good horror movie, and anyone who has any affection for the genre knows that really good stuff is few and far between. Although the first season starts out a little rough, AHS has grown into one of the most provocative and entertaining shows on television. That said, it's definitely not for everyone. If the presence of the word "horror" in a title makes you uneasy, this is not for you, because they really mean it. AHS, unlike a lot of horror films and television shows, consistently goes after material that is truly difficult and frightening, daring to explore truly dark territory. So again, not for everyone, but it's awesome that someone is pushing boundaries like this in ways most horror films are frankly too lazy to bother with.

So what can we learn from American Horror Story as gamers?

1. Short, Sweet, and Self-Contained

Each season of AHS is a complete storyline, set in a different place and focusing on a different theme. This models pretty well to the "short arc campaign" that has become the standard at my table, running an average of 8-12 sessions. Having a concrete end point puts a lot of pressure on the game to get things rolling quickly, and AHS is excellent at this, starting every season at a run (and sometimes at a breakneck gallop). Characters get established quickly, the most essential bits of exposition are delivered quickly (and important gaps can be easily filled using flashbacks), and most importantly things start happening quickly. Too often at the table, games begin at a languid pace, as people "kick the tires" on new characters (and sometimes rules) and see how they feel in play. Sometimes it takes two or three sessions to get things really rolling, finding the real conflicts and pressures in the story to explore. This can be fine, but often it's just timid. I'm a big advocate of playing hard, right now.

2. Go For Broke

Part of playing hard is holding nothing back. There is an instinct toward protecting player characters that is as old as the hobby, and completely wrong-headed for anyone interested in narrative. Characters are most interesting when they're under the most pressure, forced to adapt and act decisively when they don't have the luxury of making perfect decisions. Mistakes and bad decisions, and the fallout they create, are the stuff of great storytelling. And yes, that will lead to player characters being hurt, and maybe dying. That's okay. In fact, that's pretty exciting stuff. Breaking your toys is something that great games shouldn't be afraid to do, and AHS is constantly doing this. Characters regularly die or go through awful ordeals, like in the most recent episode of AHS: Coven I watched, where a main cast member is killed and another has acid thrown in her face. That probably isn't something that's going to happen in a lot of games at your table, but it is instructive of just how many shows (and games) like to play it safe and keep the status quo as long as possible.

3. Everything But the Kitchen Sink

Since every season of the show has a different thematic focus -- haunted houses in S1, insane asylums in s2, witches in s3 -- AHS is constantly having to reinvent itself in terms of content. The implications of this are that, to fully explore each year's theme, a great deal of material has to be squeezed into the dozen-ish episodes each season. So Coven has every witchy idea that can be squeezed into a season of TV and then some. The first season is so crammed with ghosts as they explore the theme of haunted houses that occasionally it veers into the ridiculous, with seemingly every murder in Los Angeles having happened under one roof. The useful bit here is to include as much thematic content as possible, concentrating it, making your short run game as strong and full as possible rather than stretching it out over a longer run or several separate campaigns. When I ran SUNSET EMPIRE a few years ago, I really made an effort to fill that game with all the delights of Victoriana I could imagine. And like AHS, I probably erred on the side of too much occasionally, but I didn't finish that game wishing for more.

4. Powerful Imagery

Something that AHS seems to be consistently good at is finding images that are powerful, evocative, and disturbing. I remember seeing the commercials and promo images for the first season of the show and being very off-put by the image of the ghost in the gimp suit that haunts the Murder House. What the hell kind of show was this? I'm not suggesting that you fill your games with disturbing sexual imagery, but when you discover an image like that which strikes a chord with your players, make sure to repeat it and explore it. Why does it have an effect on your players? What does it mean to them? The best example I can think of in a game was less about an image than a symbol; a necklace that passed from one character to another in the AHS-like flashbacks-rich TIANXIA campaign I ran a few years ago. The necklace came to symbolize the connection between the characters -- maybe the most important theme of the game -- in a tangible way that we hadn't anticipated. Ask any of us about that game today, and we'll probably tell you a story that includes the necklace in some way.

4. The Ensemble is Everything

Finally, AHS is at its most intriguing as an ensemble drama. Each season many of the cast members return in new roles to go with the new storyline. Sometimes they deliberately play against the type of character they portrayed in the previous season, as Evan Peters went from playing the twisted Tate in season one to the heroic Kit in season two. Of course, the writers always included a brassy, tough-as-nails role for Jessica Lange over the course of the several seasons she was with the show, but that's just playing to your strengths. What players should pay attention to is the possibility of really stretching their wings and playing against their usual instincts at the table sometimes, and also embracing the things that they're strongest at. Sometimes the ensemble at the table can be invigorated by a change like bringing in a new cast member (as AHS did when they brought aboard Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates in S3), someone who breaks up predictable social dynamics and adds something new to the mix. And at the level of running and designing games, GMs and players should always have it in their mind that the most important thing is to focus everything that happens squarely on the characters. Ensemble dramas like AHS are extremely good at this, telling large stories that are made of many parts, and there is a lot there for roleplayers to learn from.

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