The Anatomy of Situation
I’ve been thinking a lot about Situation-with-a-capital-S. What are the component parts of Situation? How can I, as a designer, break a Situation down into useful, clear categories that will help a participant in one of my games create a better (i.e., more fun) Situation than they could have created on their own?
I’ve never claimed to be a theorist, nor do I play one on TV. But breaking things down into categories like this often helps me to wrap my mind around them in a useful fashion.
The way I see it, the important components of Situation are:
Backstory: Situations don’t just appear out of thin air. “What has gone on before” constantly informs what’s happening now. By establishing how things relate to one another at the outset of play, it’s analogous to the opening setup of chess or checkers. Backstory can be so much fun that adding more later is a nice technique for deepening play that’s begun to grow stale. Paul: I think this is where Setting should be very useful, but historically has not been.
Instability: Situation cannot be settled. It must be untenable. Situation is all about change. Stasis is boring.
Conflict: How will the instability play out? Different people/forces want different outcomes and they cannot all be met. Goals need to have some degree of exclusivity.
Passion: The needs and desires of the characters are what gives Situation its drive. Humans are feeling beings and our emotions drive us to do dramatic things.
Relationships: Strangers on a train are not in a Situation. If the train derails in the middle of the desert, that conflict forces them to develop relationships with one another, which makes the Situation interesting. I’m wondering if Relationships help audiences identify with the story by parallelling relationships in the audience’s Real Life. (NOTE: Although I think “total stranger” can be a meaningful relationship [the film Seven is a good example] I think it’s very tricky to use–very easy to slide into “no relationship.”)
Consequences: Situations that resolve without something meaningful changing are cheap (the end of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is a good example). Keeping the potential consequences of a Situation in mind throughout play gives dramatic weight to each decision.
There’s more, I’m sure. Availability of Information is a big factor in Situation (Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy because of it), but I’m not quite sure how that fits.
These things are all interrelated, of course. Relationships and Passions are often filled in as part of the Backstory, which may also supply the impetus for the current Instability. Instability implies Consequence, since a situation in flux must change into something. Passions & Relationships drive the Conflict over what the Consequences will be.
None of this is directly useful as-is, but somehow I feel as if I’m closer to being able to write my Shakespearean RPG than ever.
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