Monday, July 6, 2015

Derk's Lessons from Mad Max: Fury Road... for your RPG

Our RPGs can be improved by importing techniques from a wide variety of media.  Often I talk about borrowing mechanics of techniques from other RPGs.  We don't need to limit our view in this way.

The breakout success of Mad Max: Fury Road (MMFR) presents a wonderful opportunity to consider how to improve how we tell our own RPG stories by looking at a story from a movie well-told.  I will use as a starting point Peter Derk's excellent essay on the lessons of the Fury Road screenplay.

Mad Max: Fury Road Billboard, 6th Avenue and Grand Street -- Corchplow (flikr)
MMFR has received (and earned) a great deal of praise.  People have raved about its special effects and unrelenting intensity.  It offers a number of lessons for storytelling generally.

Peter Derk wrote an excellent essay (linked above) discussing the lessons from the screenplay; a screen play that is unconventional in many way.  I will just hit some highlights and discuss how these lessons can apply to RPG sessions as well.  In short, we can learn a lot about storytelling from what works in MMFR.  We can all (RPG enthusiasts, film makers, etc.) learn a lot from excellent storytelling.

I want to focus on two specific lessons shared in this essay.

  1. Backstory -- always more backstory, but light on the exposition

Backstory and exposition has a bad reputation in films, novels, and even in RPGs.  The reputation in RPGs is that exposition often involves a GM spouting off about her world while the players passively listen.  It can be narcissistic and self-indulgent.  Players can roll their eyes and get through -- losing interest in the game wherein they listen to the GMs proto-novel.  GMs often invest a great deal in creating a detailed world and they want to tell the players all about it.  However, the traditional advice (and good advice it is) is to limit exposition and focus on action.  This is the same advice given to novelists and screenplay writers.  Derk notes about MMFR:

All the back story filled the world with great stuff. And using that story sparingly meant we got to experience an actual adventure in this world as opposed to a history lesson about a fictional world. Great use of written backstory.

MMHR takes a fairly radical approach to this advice.  Rather than merely limit exposition -- MMHR more or less eliminates it.  You get a sense of a vibrant world without some character explaining every element.  While many movies would write in a POV character (some outsider who has to have everything explained to him) to facilitate exposition, MMHR just lives in a vibrant world and lets you notice what you notice, and ignore what you don't.

One example of this is the now infamous guitar/flame thrower player.  The awkward way to include him in a movie would be to have the POV character stop and ask some other character about who the player is.  The native of the area would then fill the POV character in on the backstory of the player.  This is a way that screenwriters can tell you how cool their world is and how clever they are in designing the elements.

One part of the genius of MMHR is that this sort of exposition is simply left out.  There is a guitar/flame thrower player.  Apparently, he has a name -- but I don't think it is ever mentioned in the script.  There is no story about who he is or why is there.  He just is there... looking awesome.  He provides more flavor for the world and the background is left to the viewer to imagine.

I will keep this in mind as I design my own games.  I will not use items or NPCs as an excuse to start an expository speech.  Just create vivid objects in the world and let the PCs imaginations fill in the backstory where it is not part of the central plot.  You pretty much can not have too many vivid objects -- while it is easy to have too much exposition.

    2.  A world that lives in the story

The world of MMFR is strange -- really, really strange.  You have characters using modified versions of familiar terms (e.g. guzzoline) and twists on familiar objects (large shrines covered in steering wheels).  The world is so full of material that is... off... that it comes across as strange or weird.  How it does this provides another important lesson.  Again, some words from Derk.
Fury Road presents us, unapologetically, with the weird.
All the characters buy into it. We didn't need someone to say, "Hey, what the (censored) with the guitar guy in the pajamas?" We didn't need that because if the characters question the world, if they point out how weird it all is, then the audience is removed from the crazy.

It is easy to undermine one's own effort at creating a strange or weird setting.  For Numenera and The Strange, this is very important.  You don't want to step on the strangeness of your setting.  The Numenera core book warns, along these lines, not to try to explain everything.  Having a clever explanation undermines the weird.  Derk notes that having characters in the world react to the setting itself undermines the weird.  If the setting is inherently weird, the characters in that world should not react to the setting as if it is weird.  People from the gang in MMFR should not react to the guitar player -- he has been there all along.  Max can react because he is from somewhere else -- but the movie does not even emphasize his reaction.  Instead, the impact is left to the viewer.

For your RPGs, you can lay out weird elements but should refrain from having the NPCs react to these elements.  Leave that to your PCs.  Just describe the weird element and let your PCs react.  Otherwise, you end up with the weird narrative equivalent of Jimmy Fallon laughing at his own jokes.

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