Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Little Guys

I've recently begun reading Redshirts by John Scalzi. I'm only 50 or so pages in, and already I love it. Not only because it's clearly a look at the plight of being a redshirt in the original Star Trek series, but because it's telling a story from the point of view of the lowest-ranking crew members on board.

The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 'Lower Decks' is one of my favourite episodes of that series. It's a great story in its own right, but seeing the operations of the Enterprise from the perspective of junior officers, who don't know what's going on, was a fascinating change from the usual stories told in most media.

A friend once told me of a disagreement he had with someone, in which he was describing the reasons he didn't enjoy playing Dungeons and Dragons. The other person's response was that he 'liked playing characters that were larger than life.' That is very much a part of American culture, and informs a great deal of the stories told in this country. Nearly every movie, every TV show, even a majority of books and comics and other stories tend to have the leaders as the main characters. From Star Trek to Battlestar Galactica to the X-Men franchise to A Song of Ice and Fire to iZombie, the protagonists are always the ones with access to resources and in some sort of leadership position. That leadership may take the form of being a lone wolf (as is the case with The Doctor from Doctor Who, who works with a single companion at a time, or Conan, who works alone most of the time unless he knows he needs help), making him the leader of a gang of one (so to speak).

Very seldom do we see characters who don't have access to the resources normally viewed as forefront in the heroic archetype. If there's information a character lacks, he's usually able to gain access to it somehow (pulling strings with friends, hacking into a computer system, sneaking into an office to find documents, etc). One of the things I really like about 'Lower Decks' is that the main characters are specifically forbidden to have the information that is driving the story. Most of them know some small piece of information (Nurse Ogawa is aware that there is a Cardassian aboard the Enterprise, Ensign Taurik is involved in making a shuttlecraft appear to have been damaged in a firefight, etc). But each of them is under orders not to share that information with the others.

A similar arrangement appears in Redshirts. The main characters are a group of five ensigns who have just been assigned to the starship Intrepid. At first, they become aware that something very strange is going on aboard the ship, but nobody will tell them anything. Eventually, they start to find small pieces of information on their own, and other crew members begin revealing little nuggets of knowledge. But so far, they still are mostly clueless about the events they're witnessing.

I see a lot of story potential in this setup. Although most players may be drawn to the free-wheeling power that comes with having characters who are at the forefront of their field, the dramatic tension of withholding vital knowledge can be instrumental in weaving a fascinating tale.

Warning: The next paragraph contains a lot of spoilers for the TV series Lost Girl. Proceed with caution.

Of course, in doing this, it's important to avoid the same sort of mistakes made by the Canadian television series Lost Girl. I really liked that show in the beginning, when the main character, Bo, chose to break from tradition and forge her own path in fae society. But the series made the mistake of foreshadowing too much. In the first season, secondary characters would constantly make comments out of Bo's earshot about how she would one day become the most powerful fae. Starting in the second season, that prophecy was dropped, and they started preparing a great deal of build-up of the role of Bo's father. This was so intense, that when they started the Wanderer storyline, viewers thought that 'The Wanderer' was Bo's father, and certain things that were seen and said reinforced this. But at the beginning of season 4, when we finally meet The Wanderer, he's not Bo's father after all. We don't even see her father at all until halfway through Season 5. Despite building up the tension of her father, he's not seen until two seasons later.

End of Spoiler Alert.

The point is, be careful that, in withholding information from the characters, you don't change what's going on outside of the character's awareness. Whatever the plan was you had at the beginning, stick with it. If you change what the tidbits of information meant after they've been revealed, the story will have a disjointed and dissatisfying feel.

The exception to this is if the players start making predictions that not only work, but work better than the plan you had to begin with. Sometimes, making the players' predictions be right at the cost of some behind-the-scenes retconning can be more satisfying than sticking with your original plan, as long as it doesn't disrupt the flow of the story.

Anyway, I think this story format has a lot of potential. Playing the low man on the totem pole can be fun! Give it a try some time! And if you do, let me know how it turns out. Until then, remember to

Game on!

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