Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Anthology Games Part 2 - Tone and Message

In my own experience and studying of RPG's, I've never seen this played out explicitly or even really discussed, but I'd like to see examples if anyone has any. A movie anthology RPG (MARPG) would have to meet a couple of criteria matching what happens in actual movies. First and foremost, an MARPG has to be several smaller games broken up into distinct arcs played out over the course of a single, possibly extended, game session. The games should all share a broad genre (like horror, western, sci-fi, or fantasy) that can give some cohesiveness to the overall tone and message of the night. After all, it's likely that each game will star a whole new cast of characters for the players to utilize in telling the story. 

Those are the most important part of an MARPG - tone and message. Tone is going to be the glue that keeps your stories together - driving towards the overall feeling and helping to deliver the message in turn for each story that's played out. Whether it's thriller, horror, or even slapstick, tone is what ultimately will keep the two to four stories played out make sense when looked at together. It's important to establish the tone of the night outright before even the first game begins. Like trying any genre outside of generic sci-fi or fantasy, you need to let your players know what kind of story they're walking in to. They need to know what types of tropes might be thrown at them, and that they should probably pay a little more attention to keeping the right tone themselves through out the night.

Of course it's possible to play with tone a bit. The anthology movie, The Signal (pictured at the top of this post) is a perfect example of how tone can be manipulated in order to give the audience a reprieve - catch a breather. The Signal is a horror movie through-and-through. In each unique act truly terrible things happen to and are caused by the main characters. The catch here is that each act is directed by a different person. They have to work towards maintaining the message of the movie, but have a lot of freedom otherwise. The second act of the movie takes a turn for very dark comedy which the audience member does not see coming based on the first act. By the time you get to the third act, you've had some time to recover for the pure horror that finished off the film. Consider changing up the tone a bit in the middle of the game to give your players a pallet cleanser of sorts. Just to make sure to re-establish the overall tone for the final act.

Message is the theme of the night. It's what the GM and players will explore through different scenarios and scene set-ups. If tone is the flavor, then message is the actual dish. Message can be as simple as "trust no one" or as complex as "the funniest thing that can happen is when a well-laid plan falls apart." It's the kind of story you want to tell, and each separate game should add something unique to the mix that adds to the overall message. We don't often think of games as something with a message. We tend to just think of something cool or a neat twist and work it into a bigger plot or adventure. In reality, lots of the best games are so good because they have a specific message they want to give the players and all the rules in the game work to support it. Fiasco is the best example I can think of. Both of the messages I used above could match Fiasco's message, but overall it's as simple as this - "Things Fall Apart." Not just plans, but people, relationships, etc.

Planning your message from the start is not just a great way to make sure it's all going to fit together at the end of the night, it's down-right crucial. The message is the true reason to play. It's the theme that you and your players are going to explore using play-acting and game mechanics. In this way, an MARPG is actually a lot like real group work in therapy. Role Play in group therapy is a very popular technique, and it's often used to explore these underlying thoughts and feelings in a person's head. Role Play in Friday night gaming doesn't have to be drawn from a neuroses but instead can be used to explore a creative concept. The message, for example, can be used to explore a theme from a story you're trying to write. An MARPG can help you gain insight into the theme of your story simply by seeing it played out in the message and tone through several different settings, characters, and challenges.

I hope you enjoyed this musing on MARPG's and will come back for my next and final post on the topic where I examine some of the guts of what will make an anthology game really run on all cylinders when the group hits the table.


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