Fermat, Huygens-Fresnel, plot structure, and roleplaying


Yep. I got onto the idea of disadvantages with the Hero System, before there was a GURPS. I’ve long thought that they were mischaracterised as a balancing consideration and mispriced when valued in proportion to their inconvenience to the character and considered as a compensation. Rather, they ought to be valued in proportion to their usefulness to the GM and contribution to the enjoyment of the game for the other players and considered as an incentive.


Motivation is a problem in Call of Cthulhu: if the world is doomed anyway, I could destroy myself to push that doom back a few years, or I could have a good life in the time that’s left. People who come into mythos-hunting because their uncle left them a haunted house may well choose option B, which is fine for the character but less good for the game. Trail tries to solve this by requiring an explicit “why you do this” motivation, which is all right; I’d rather agree with the players that their characters are going to be the sort of people to whom it matters. (My character in @Lordof1’s Masks game is basically out to shut down fraudsters who use occult trappings, on the basis that messing with this stuff is dangerous and tends to spill over onto the innocent.)

One of the advantages of @whswhs’ campaign-choice system is that players who easily get bored have, at least, chosen this campaign and so have a basic level of investment in it, rather than just going along with the group. The kind of pre-game agreement I’m talking about produces a similar small involvement, a sense of collusion between player and GM.

But I’m drifting far from the topic. In a campaign I ran some years ago, the players put in a lot of work to make sure their assault on an enemy base would go smoothly. In linear media, the work would be elided, and the assault would have had complications and drama. Instead, the work was the focus, and the assault itself was elided; the lack of peril was the reward for the preparation. It’s not that linear media can’t do that, but it’s almost always designed for a larger audience than just the people helping to create it, and most of them will want the conventional shape of story. Being involved in making it happen makes it more fun, to the extent that one can get away with less conventional shapes.


It’s interesting that you bring this up, because I’ve been pondering motivation in my prep for the game; as you say, it’s one of the few genuine problems I feel the system suffers from, and that problem will loom large in Masks - the campaign strongly relies on the characters actively investigating events, and there will definitely come a point where any realistic character would say to him/herself ‘Ths is ridiculous - my life is seriously at risk here.’
Given that (quite reasonable) player motivation issues very nearly derailed the prologue scenario, I’ve decided to be up front about the problem with the upcoming campaign, and I’m going to request that the players somewhat metagame this, or we won’t have a game to play. To be specific, I’m asking the players to come up with a strong motivational reason to pursue the investigation as far as they can. This isn’t the same as a death wish - I won’t be expecting players to throw their lives away cheaply, or to avoid calling in authorities, but I will need each of them to have a strong reason for pursuing and avenging the death of their friend (oh, spoiler, sorry) - one that works for their character and that they can play without ruining the rest of the character concept.
This isn’t something I’ve tried in any game before, but with Masks particularly, with no motivation, there’s no game, so as my game approaches I’ll be asking for this one prenuptial out-of-character agreement. Let’s see if it works!


I’ve deliberately not refreshed my very hazy memory of YSDC’s playthrough of Masks, but I understand there are cultists in it; what Rabbit’s Foot really cares about, after his time in the War and among London and Paris occultists afterwards, is preventing people from mucking around with magic, because they and other people get hurt. (That didn’t seem to be at issue in the prequel, which was why he wasn’t pushing at it as hard as he might have been.)


Motivating the PCs can seem like a problem, but your players agreed to an implicit contract and they’re there to play the game. In character doubts and discussions are fun, but even a half-baked justification to continue is all that’s needed.

As Nelson put it, “Never mind manoeuvres, always go at them.” He also said “…you must hate a Frenchman as you do the devil,” which I’m sure will be equally useful.


To look at things from another angle: linear media don’t need to be written in a linear way, while improvised media do.

(Incidentally I recommend that anyone interested in writing of any sort look at Pat Wrede’s blog https://www.pcwrede.com/blog/ - it’s a course on writing better than many you might pay for, and it’s free.)

Even if you are the sort of author who does write in a basically linear manner without much outline, you still have the option of getting to the end, thinking “that particular thing worked well”, and going back and putting in bits of foreshadowing to give it more build-up. As a GM or player, we’re back to @Agemegos’ description of laying down lots of traps and expanding on the ones that get tripped. Unless you’re going to say explicitly in advance that the characters have a particular destiny, I think this is unavoidable.

My approach broadly is to leave those traps out, but not to worry too much about it if someone comes up with something better. I’ve played with dirigiste GMs, and it wasn’t fun; if I want to write a novel, I’ll write a novel.

As a result of that, and considering the example of the assault on the base I mentioned above, I think that it’s OK not to have the tension level gradually rising towards the climactic events. If it happens, it’s fine; the basic pattern of a technical/procedural/action scene followed by a talky/character scene is not a bad one (any long-running TV series will give examples of this; I find CSI particularly easy to analyse). But neither is the pattern of giving each character a moment to shine in each session, and sticking rigidly to any of these patterns risks removing the basic enjoyment that comes with being involved in the interactive creation of a story. When the YSDC crew go off on a shopping or dining expedition, it would be death to linear drama, but it’s fun for them because they can delve through period catalogues and menus – and even though they were recording, “fun for them” should come before “makes a good linear drama later”.


The introduction of such elements, which may or may not ever be used, is part of which I mean by “thrashing around.”

I’m sensible of the delight of a session or an adventure where everything converges toward a single theme based on a single premise and leading up to a single resolution. But I think there’s a danger, in seeking such a result, of being tenpted precisely into what you call a dirigiste approach, one that deprives players of co-authorship and at a fundamental level of agency. And for that reason, I think the provision of mantel guns that may never be fired is not merely a liability of RPGs that we have to tolerate, but essential to good GMing practice.

We have the terminological contrast of “sandbox” and “railroad.” Personally, I consider both of those as unsatisfactory approaches in pure form, though my sympathies are more with the sandbox, and it’s the extreme I’m more likely to approach. But I like to think of myself as a GM as being like Gromit riding a toy train and frantically laying down track ahead of where the train is going. I think if you want to lay your story out in advance, you would probably do better to write a novel.

On the other hand, comparable episodes often play a role in some genres and media. The “bathhouse” episode is an old tradition in anime. Or there’s the somewhat comparable episode in Girls und Panzer where the protagonist is about to lead her school team in the final desperately important senshado (roughly, Tank Driving Sport) match against the rival team captained by her older sister, and the various tank crews take the final evening off to relax doing whatever they love best, from working on engines to watching classic movies. This is kind of like what I like to call a “shore leave” episode, but I think it has slightly different functions.


In this context, I have to mention Fixers, one of my GURPS campaigns of some years back. This was a “consulting criminals” campaign about a group of professional criminals who hired out to do jobs that ordinary criminal groups lacked the skills or resources to carry out. Most of the scenarios were more or less classic caper stories. But in the first scenario or two, the play consisted largely of researching the situation, and making intricate plans, and working out step by step what was supposed to happen, and having it come off without a hitch—and all but one of the players found this so boring that they were ready to call the campaign off.

What I ended up doing was greatly reducing the planning, and instead allowing the Tactics roll by the planner to give credits for “Fortunately, I planned for that”—and then playing out the actual execution, with things going wrong and being fixed. The players were a lot happier with that level of dramatic tension.


I think that’s a better example than the bathhouse / hot springs / beach episodes, which too often are just an excuse to show skimpy costumes. (Also, Girls und Panzer is great.) Even so, it serves the purpose of showing more about the characters’ personalities, where the RPG shopping sequence feels to me really more like an ab-procedural element (how can I get the gun with the best stats / look at this weird thing I, the player, found in a catalogue) than an ab-characterisation one.


There is the earlier episode where Miho and her friends are out scouting the school grounds for abandoned tanks. That’s notable in that it’s the episode that introduces Yukari, who is a total senshado geek, and in that all the different tanks have entirely different capabilities, which has very much a “shopping” feel.