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It's All in the Technique

by Doctor Rotwang


"Doc....Doc, wake up."

Uh? Mmmmmmmgh...pbllt. G'way.

"No, Doc. C'mon, get up."

Uh? Ph...Phoebe? Um....lemme - it's only 2:00am. Lemme sl-

"It's 2:00 PM. You missed cartoons. Listen, Steve called, he wants the second part of your 'Is It Art'? article."

Oh. Yeah...okay, right, uh-huh, OK. Hey, listen....Phoebe?


Um. Seein' as how, uh, you're, with, uh, with ME....did - did, uh, did YOU and I -

"No. Judge Rheinhold and I came by to pick up Webster and Punky Brewster. They said you passed out playing 'RoleMaster' last night."


Damn you, Judge Rheinhold.

* * * * *

Hello again. This is Dr. Rotwang, coming to you from the expansive Rotwang mansion in sunny, beautiful Pasadena (Well, okay, Indiana). I'm awake now and have put on an Alphaville let's get down to business.

The topic: "Liz Taylor -- Her Life In Loud, Braying Noises".




"You're off-topic again. Steve says, 'Write About "Gaming As Art"'.

Oh. Yeah. OK. Well, you see, it's kind of a difficult topic, see? I mean, where do you START?

"Hmn. Well, last time you pointed out how Literature, Cinema and Theatre share common bonds with gaming. Right?"

Uh, yeah.

"Okay. Now maybe you can describe those bonds - those techniques, really, and how they can be applied."

Techniques, huh? You mean, like Pacing, Symbolism, Mise-en-scene and Liam Neeson?

"Liam Neeson? The actor? What are you talking about?"

He was in "Krull". Did you know that? Looked like crap. That's what happens when you get your hair done by Midichlorians, I guess.

"Well, is he a storytelling technique?"

Okay, so just Pacing, Symbolism and Mise-en-scene."

"Yeah. So there you go, there are your techniques. Well, some to start with. Those are all used in theatre/lit/cinema, and can be used in gaming."

Yeah. Did you know that Liz Tay--

"Okay. So do you just kinda shove these techniques in willy-nilly? I mean, do you use 'em just 'cause you know 'em?"

No! Never! These techniques, my dear, they are tools for telling your story, but there's just that - YOUR TOOLS. Slaves to the plot. The idea is that they help you to communicate your ideas to your audience, and to enhance the, the, the, the EXPERIENCE....the experience of your game. So, so, so....if you....if you imagine THIS kind of a story, you can use these tools to put across THIS kind of a story instead of THAT kind of a story.

"So what exactly are they? What is Pacing?"

Pacing? Well, pacing is the speed at which you tell a story. See, it can be fast or slow -- it's like the music to which your story dances. There's a right way and a wrong way to pace something, but how you pace it exactly depends upon the story you want to tell. It's also what scenes follow which, see? Like, for instance, an action scene following an expository scene, and why does that action come after exposition, instead of the other way around? Like that.

"Okay. So pacing is, basically, what happens when, and why, and at what speed."


"Now, how do I use that in MY game? I mean, what does that do for me?"

Pacing can set the mood of a story. The trick is to use pacing to your advantage, and to use it to tell the story you want to tell. If you want a hack-and-slash game, use fast pacing and don't slow down for more than a few minutes - just long enough to count the gold in the piles. Gloss over little details. But if you want to tell a sprawling epic, then alternate between fast scenes full of breakneck action, and slow ones that really just color the world. Like in "Lord of the Rings". Of course, a gentle, somber story probably has slow scenes in it, and little action.

The way you string stuff together is important too, right? 'Cause you don't want a dull, pointless chunk of information in the middle of lots of exciting stuff.

"Or fast, furious action scenes coming out of nowhere, JUST to pick up the pace."

There are times that you DO want that. Maybe you want to tell a story with confusion as a central theme, see? And actually, the whole "sudden-action-out-of-nowhere" technique is great for horror games. You lull yoyr players into a sense of security, because they've been in the basement counting barrels and building barricades for the last half hour of gametime -- then, BOOM! the wall comes down and some slithery thing just up and EATS ONE OF THEM in two seconds flat. Aiieee! You've used pacing to connote a sense of....despair, of uncertainty.

Again, there's no right or wrong, really -- just what serves your story best. Just like none of Liz Taylor's husbands seem to have served her well.

"What's the deal with Liz Taylor?"

I honestly do not know.

"A-HA! Pacing!"


"See, you were on a roll about pacing, talking in big words and concepts, and then when you were coming to the end of it you injected the Liz Taylor stuff, which eased you to a stop. Instead of just stop-start, you did start-roll-decelerate-stop. You're smooth, Doc."

C'mere and I'll show you just HOW smooth.

"Show me what you know about symbolism instead."

Okay. Well, symbolism, see, that's when you use something to represent something else, and you do it sort of on the sly. But it's not always subtle - sometimes it's pretty obvious. Symbols can say things about something without using words.

"Clear that up, kemosabe."

Okay, Let's say your game is about....the final days of a civilization. You, the GM, are trying to tell your players this basic message: "THE END IS NIGH". Well, you can just keep repeating those words over and over, and they'll just go, "Yeah, we get it". OR, if you're sneaky, not to mention lots less BORING, you can say "THE END IS NIGH" in different and indirect ways. Think of things that suggest the end of the civilization. Buildings falling apart? The government ceases to function? Civility breaks down, and people statrt behaving erratically? You can toss these things in, just little quickies, and say "THE END IS NIGH" in different ways.

"I see. The little bits have nothing to do with the plot, but everything to do with the theme."

Yeah. You, um, you can use them for characterization, too -- in a "Star Wars" game I've yet to run, there's a female Darth who is a villain only because she's never seen The Light Side of The Force. The characters are supposed to identify this, so they can turn her to The Light. So this female Darth wears a black visor over her eyes. That says tons about her character, if you think abouty it right -- you can't see her eyes, which are The Windows of the Soul; her vision is blinded by The Dark Side; her true self is hidden or in a critical battle scene with a heroic Jedi, she loses part of the visor. Pow! One of her eyes is revealed! Now she's only HALF-blind, and we can see HALF of who she really is -- she stops, stares at the PC, shuts off her saber and runs off. This is meant to tip the Jedi off that she's not really evil - she just hasn't--

"Seen the world through her own eyes. I get it. Man, that can go awry, though, can't it?"

What do you mean?

"Like, it can be grossly misinterpreted."

Yes, or misused. Misinterpreted, like people who keep seeing guns and think they stand for penises, so in "La Femme Nikita", when Nikita receives a gift and it turns out to be a gun with which she must kill someone, it's REALLY a man handing her a penis that empowers her but only to do his bidding, and blah blah blah. That's taking interpretation a little too far. Or you can PUT TOO MUCH SYMBOLISM IN, and lose your audience completely. There's a Thornton Wilder play called "The Skin of our Teeth", where you can't tell what the story is about because there's too much artsy-fartsy symbolism in it.

"Did you just say 'artsy-fartsy'?"

Yes. But the point is, you see, that it's easy to misuse symbolism, and it's easy to give the wrong idea with it, so you, the GM, must use it carefully.



"You didn't mention Liz Taylor."

Yeah, well....

"What was the other one? Me's on send?"

Oh, yeah. Mise-en-scene. It's a French cinema term that, uh, that has to do with how your setting influences your story, and vice-versa. I think it also means, effectively, 'Art Design'.

"Ooooh, French cinema terms. How artsy-fartsy."

Watch it, sister. I may have a crush on you, but I also have this pillow, and I WILL use it.

"Yeah, whatever. Mise-en-scene sounds like it's related to symbolism, yeah?"

Sort of. The example of mise-en-scene that was given to me, when I was taught the term in an artsy-fartsy cinema class, was "Blade Runner". The instructor used the term, see, to talk about WHY everything in "Blade Runner" is dark, grimy, and shrouded with steam. It's that way because it suggests mystery, crowding, run-away technology -- and isn't the movie a gumshoe story about tracking down runaway androids that look so human they can get lost in a crowd?


Yes! Mise-en-scene is sort of a cousin to setting. If you say that your game's setting is, say, a fantasy kingdom, that's all well and good. But that says nothing about the story, or the mood, tone or anything about it. Let me describe, in capsule, two fantasy kingdoms for you, and you tell me what kind of story you think they're for. Okay?

"Go ahead."

Okay. A busy medieval city, full of people and things. Banners flap in the wind and the sun shines on a hundred rooftops. Humans, elves, dwarves, halflings and gnomes fill the wide, cobbled streets, so that they look like rainbows crawling on the ground. There's always something to hear: merchants hawking their wares, children laughing, crows cawing, dogs barking, church bells ringing. What kind of story takes place here?

"I'd say the beginning of a high fantasy story. Something light-hearted. It's a feel-good campaign."

Okay. Now -- narrow, craggy mountains like green teeth against the slate-grey sky. The wind whistles over lakes of mist in the valleys and hollows. Here, an ancient mound of stones that was once a castle: now merely great boulders tumbled over and carpeted with moss. There, a ring of boulders, smoothed by countless rains. A single black bird perched upon a stone flitters and takes flight, leaving behind nothing but silence. What's going on?

"A scary story. Sort of depressing, maybe. Loneliness....ancient mysteries. I expect there to be grave mounds, grave mounds with ghosts in them."

Bingo. Yes! That's The Ancient Writer's Law: SHOW, DON'T TELL. Look, they're both fantasy campaign areas, but they just kind of suggest entirely different stories, entirely different games. But I didn't say, "This is a happy story about a happy land", or "This is a scary story about ghosts and ancient mysteries". Instead, with my description, I PUT you there.

"So you built the world around the story, instead of building the story around the world."

Yes. You can do both, equally. Again, there's no such thing as "Thou Shalt Do It SO", but there's plenty of "use this to get what YOU WANT". It's all about using these techniques to YOUR advantage.

"But you could've showed too much. I mean, DESCRIBED too much. Like Tolkien sometimes did."

Yeah, Professor Tolkien had a way of describing things in such detail that he often slowed down the pace of his story. Sometimes that's a good thing; sometimes it's bad.

"Back to pace! We've come full circle."


"But now, listen -- is it art yet?"

Well, no, no it isn't. But it's closer to art. Art is for you to decide, really. It CAN be art, if you decide what you want, and MAKE what you want, and if everybody in your game group gets it. Once you've made something that means something to everyone else, then maybe it's art. From a deep, philosophical game to a kill-or-be-killed bulletfest, doesn't matter. You've told the story you wanted to tell, and you've employed craft to do it.

"Wait, Doc."

Okay, but for what?

"Well, I'm just thinking....WHY go through all the trouble? I mean, what if your players don't get it? I mean, think about the guy who gets off work from Pizza Tyrant on Friday night, and just wants to pop open some trolls. Why's it gonna matter to him that the kingdom has mise-en-scene, or pacing?"

Well, they're your players. If they're not gonna go in for it, then don't do it. But at least these few techniques can help you tell your story better. Even the guy who just wants to spew goblin-guts hither and yon would probably like it if the game were fast and furious, and that's a job for our old friend pacing. In the end, my delectable Phoebe, these are really just ideas -- something to thimk about. If you can use 'em, use 'em. If you can't, or don't WANT to, then screw 'em. Who cares? But at least now you KNOW a bit about them.

"And Knowing Is Half The Battle."

Yeah. More than meets the eye. Uh....Mobile Armored Strike Kommand. I used to love that cartoon -- remember "M.A.S.K."?



"It strikes me that those aren't all the techniques available."

No. And you really have to look for more. Our society has the most access to the most information than any before. Now is a great time to consume stuff -- read books, see movies, plays, etc. The 'Net opens you up to SO much. And, here, see, HERE's the BIG trick -- don't just look at good stuff. Examine CRAP, too. Do you know just how much I learned about filmmaking by watching bad movies, and then saying, "I didn't like This or That, and The Other would've gone better if it'd been done Like So"?

"You learned lots?"

Yes. I learned lots.

"Well, I'll go tell Steve the article's done."

No it isn't! I hadn't even STARTED when you came in! Now. Where was I? Ah, yes -


BREEEEEEEEEEEE HnEEEEEEEEE hooooooooonk-a GRONNNNNNNNNK-a braaaaaaaaaaaaUUUUUUUUU----Ouch! Hey! Why'd you hit me?

"For changing the pace."


Dr Rotwang is a Teapot, Short and Stout. Here is his Handle, here is his...umn...screw it, he's a sugar bowl.

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