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.


26 Responses to “The Anatomy of Situation”

  1. Backstory and Relationships
    I am finding that leaving very large gaps in Backstory has been productive in the Dogs game I’m running at the GGG. Encouraging one of the players discard the 4-page background and telling him that it would emerge in play was surpassingly fruitful, especially since his foster brother was another PC, and they were going to their home town first. All sorts of good relationship stuff came up.
    I would argue that strangers on a train (or wherever) can be Situation given a bit of Passion; Brief Encounter, for example. Would you characterise Viola and Sebastians’ interactions with the Illyrians as being – initially – that of strangers in Twelfth Night?

    • Re: Backstory and Relationships
      I’m glad that filling in the back story has been going well in Dogs. That’s precisely the kind of thing I meant when I said: “Backstory can be so much fun that adding more later is a nice technique for deepening play that’s begun to grow stale.” You’re right that it can be done from the get-go, though.
      As for Twelfth Night (which I haven’t reread in a shamefully long time), I can see what you’re saying. Viola forms Relationships very quickly because of her internal passions (“I love the Duke”) AND because of the backstory (“I’m stranded in this strange land and need to make myself useful in order to live.”). Kinda like the way Relationships work in DitV and Trollbabe. You can just take them once they interest you.
      I think that the “strangerness” of the Duke and Viola is very important in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. I mean, except for the fact that we *know* it’s a comedy, we’ve really got no guarantee in Act I that Shakespeare isn’t going to pull an Oedipus-thing on us.
      That’s what I mean by Availability of Information. It’s tough to pin down in a game-usable way, but very, very powerful dramatically. I mean, “Luke, I am your father” changes the whole damn trilogy right there, doesn’t it?

      • Shhh! I am the Emperor.
        Availability of Information can make or break drama. “Luke, I am your father” enlightened the whole trilogy in a good way (Ewoks notwithstanding). By contrast, the first prequel was heavily marred by the audience knowledge that Palpatine was the Sith Lord and future Emperor, and the movie’s absolute refusal to explicitly acknowledge that and revel in his duplicity. Illusionism or just crappy writing?
        I think what I am getting at with Twelfth Night, is that Strangers are only uninteresting if they’re not fodder for becoming Relationships, by way of Passions. In other words, if a stranger does not target a player/character’s existing flag, they’re going to be furniture, not a character.

        • Re: Shhh! I am the Emperor.
          You’re absolutely right about Availability of Information being a make-or-break thing. In last week’s Mortal Coil game, I recall we had a quick discussion about how much Arthur King and Gwen Newlot knew about the faerie realm and magick and stuff. Both Krista & Kat decided they were clueless, but both players were very engaged and delighted by magickal stuff, and how close it comes to being revealed.
          I think this could benefit from being addressed in a very firm, likely mechanical, way. Here’s a Universalis rule for you: “Spend 1 coin to establish a fact. You must spend 1 coin for every character that knows that fact.” That would cause some great play, I think.
          As for the failures of the SW prequels, don’t get me started. I could rant and rave all day!
          When you say: “Strangers are only uninteresting if they’re not fodder for becoming Relationships” I’m in 100% full agreement. Just like Setting is uninteresting if it’s not fodder for becoming Situation.
          I would suggest that strangers can become Relationships through Conflict as well as through Passion, although it’s harder to do well. It often turns into the stuff of cheap Westerns or Kung Fu movies: “You killed my brother.” But I’d say that Katherine & Petruccio fall into this model, as do Hotspur and Hal, possibly Inigo & Wesley in the Princess Bride. But it’s difficult to pull off.
          BTW, as long as we’re talking about bad writing & Shakespeare did you see that the same folks that brought us 10 Things I Hate About You are targeting Twelfth Night in something called She’s the Man? Shouldn’t they curst for disturbing Will’s bones? 8^)

          • Re: Shhh! I am the Emperor.
            I saw the trailer for She’s the Man the other day, which may have been what put me in mind of it. I either have to scrub my brain with steel wool and lye or go and see it. Possibly both, although not in that order.

  2. Nice, man. Very clean writeup.
    War of the Worlds was a big disapoinment over the last issue. It almost made it. Almost, almost, almost. The horror of the scene in the basement, however, was wiped away as soon as the son magically came out the door. So damn close.

    • You said it, Brand. Kat wasn’t interested, so I watched it by myself. Afterward, she asked me why I was grumpy. “Spielberg lied to me,” I said. I was aghast when they get to the house and the ex-wife is there (along with her husband and both parents) and they’re all clean and well-dressed. WTF? Totally snapped my Disbelief Suspenders.
      Then the son cut them to ribbons. Spielberg is too enamored of his happy endings.

      • Not to mention that if I were the player of Tom Cruise’s character, I’d have been pissed. Seriously pissed.
        I remember thinking, as I watched the end of the movie, “So, wow… that means the whole statement they made in the basement, the neccesity of doing horrible things to ensure the survival of your child, is all crap. The director just spit on his own work.”
        If that was the GM doing that in a game I was in, I’d be livid.

        • wow. as soon as I read that I thought about how many times GM’s DO do that. Cool statement is about to be made and then suddenly the GM changes things and everything you’ve been doing is made insignifigant. I hate that!

          • Hell yes! I think of it as betrayal. If, at any point, I think the other players might feel betrayed by me (Alexander), rather than my character or GM NPCs, I’m pretty sure I have done something very wrong.

  3. Shakespeare RPG?
    Comedy, Tragedy, History, or Other (stuff like The Tempest)?

    • Where do ya think “Incarnadine” came from?
      Any of the above, if I can pull it off. To use your terms, Incarnadine is my Great White Game. But part of what’s shifting in my head is my own expectations of the project. I know I can’t make something that is All Things Shakespeare to all people. If I could, I’d be as much a genius as the Bard himself … which I ain’t. But what I can do is make a fun game inspired by one aspect of the Bard’s genius.
      Further news as events warrant.

      • Re: Where do ya think “Incarnadine” came from?
        Wow. That is big.
        I would totally want to make a series of four games, one for each.
        Oh, wait…

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