Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hamlet's Hit Points [RPG book review]

I've been buying very few actual gaming books lately, but have been slowly adding books about RPG's and GM techniques to my library.  The latest is a book called Hamlet's Hit Points by Robin Laws.  For those who don't know, Laws is one of those game designers who has had his thumb in the pie of so many different RPG's out there he didn't even bother listing his bona vides in the back of the book.

The core thesis behind Hamlet's Hit Points is that in movies and plays (and their descendants radio shows and television programs), there are nine identifiable "beats," specific moments in the narrative flow with a purpose.  There are two major kinds of beats: procedural, which either move the protagonist towards or away from an external goal; and dramatic, which move the protagonist towards or away from an internal goal (such as a personal relationship).  The movement towards and away from a goal creates two emotional responses from the viewer: hope and fear, which Laws illustrates graphically as up and down arrows.

The other seven kinds of beats are minor in nature but also create a positive or negative response, or on rare occasion a lateral move.  These minor beats are things like "Question," which poses an unknown element to the protagonist and viewer, or "Gratification" which is usually a positive bit of fan service, or "Pipe" which is an apparently random or pointless element that will have greater significance later.

To illustrate how this works, Laws painstakingly goes through three works--Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the movies Dr. No and Casablanca, and highlights every beat, scene by scene.  There is a graphic layout of the movement up and down and the beat involved across the top of the pages as he does this.  It is an impressive bit of research on his part, and effective in its execution, although on rare occasion I noticed that the graphic didn't always match the text when it came to up- and down-arrows.

When the rubber hits the RPG road isn't until the very end, when Laws talks about how this whole concept can be incorporated into running a game.  It's interesting that after 186 pages of introducing the concept and giving three examples, the chapter on how this works in an RPG setting on a practical level is six pages long.  That's because what Laws is mostly doing is trying to get GM's to be aware of the dynamic, to teach how to identify and observe, and then manipulate as necessary.  Most of the practical notes suggest things like finding a useful way to track ups-and-downs in gameplay and then documenting afterwards.  I could envision myself creating two vertical charts, almost like a barometer, and moving a token up and down the chart as events unfold.  The goal is to prevent too much consistent movement in either direction, because that can produce apathy and disengagement for the players.

That makes a lot of sense to me.  I've watched my group steamroll through encounters without a sweat and while it is fun to indulge in that kind of adolescent fantasy power trip, I can also tell when they start breaking out their smartphones and surfing the web.  By the same token, on the rare occasion everything goes wrong, I can also see their glowering and sulking and pulling back as well.  I'm going to try to see if being mindful of the ups and downs helps with this.

I also could see myself outlining RPG sessions differently, structuring them according to possible procedural and dramatic turns, and salting them with the other seven.  It probably isn't anything I haven't done before, but not as intentionally with this vocabulary.

Anyways, a fascinating book, even if it is just to recount two movies I like a great deal with new insight.  Recommended.

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