A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
In my book Hamlet’s Hit Points I present a way of looking at stories called beat analysis. The system, when internalized, sharpens your understanding of narrative technique. As a GM, it allows you to make good choices on the fly.
Among the tricks revealed there are those surrounding the artful revelation of information.
Almost any moment in a story (or beat, as writing jargon has it) moves the audience emotionally. It either introduces fear, or lifts us with hope. Stories play with other emotions within these opposed, overarching impulses. By modulating these ups and downs in a consistent but irregular manner, a story keeps us engaged. Great popular narratives ensure that we neither become too complacent for the fate of the characters we identify with, or so anxious that we lose hope and withdraw.
In general, questions make us anxious and count as down beats. They suggest disorder. Never does a mystery nag more vehemently at the back of the mind than when we think we’re almost putting it together.
Answers, on the other hand, relieve our unease. If the unknown evokes fear, the known settles us in a place of order and harmony.
Yet just as obstacles in an action sequence, when overcome, typically lead to further obstacles, an answered question usually raises another. This ensures that the emotional rhythm of an investigative scene follows the requirements of compelling narrative. That’s why the mystery structure retains such a hold over popular media. As Ashen Stars readers have seen, it even shows up, where you don’t expect it, like the space opera. A story in which a character you care about uncovers the answers to a series of questions that intrigue you is inherently interesting on a deep psychological level. Whether an individual example delivers or not is up to the creator.
Let’s turn this abstract observation into practical gaming advice.
In the unique story-making process that unfolds during a roleplaying session, participants oscillate constantly between twin roles as both authors and audience. When the emotional rhythm goes aground and frustrates players (as audience members) their ability to make satisfying choices (as authors) diminishes.
As a GM, you can keep an eye on this by remaining aware of the group’s collective emotional state. When players disengage, diagnose why this has happened by looking at what questions (down beats) hang over their heads and what answers (up beats) they might productively pursue.
If unanswered questions pile up, the group loses hope…or, just as fatally, becomes confused and loses its stake in answering any of them. They may block themselves by focusing their attention too fully on a single avenue of investigation, when crucial clues lie elsewhere. Cut through confusion by acting as recapping narrator. Simply by listing the currently open questions, you may spark the group to re-engage:
“Maybe at this point it would be good to review. Yes, the Trigulon refuses to talk and seems unlikely to budge. Unless there’s something you’ve overlooked that might give you leverage over him. What was that weird energy signature in the airlock? Where did Persimmons’ sister go? And what’s up with that unauthorized viroware shipment? Could that be connected to anything?”
A list format preserves player choice, giving them more than one option, while replacing the disengagement of frustration with the engagement of questions unanswered. A typical group will at this point either split up to tackle each question in sequence, or concentrate all of their energy on the single most promising one.
As a player, you can forestall the moment where the GM has to step in, by reciting the list yourself. This helps shape your picture of the case, and grabs the attention of distracted fellow players.
When in doubt, express the situation in question form. If you have an answer already, you’ve solidified your understanding. If not, your question is a call to action.
If the question at hand is “Where did Persimmons’ sister go”?, various ways of revealing the answer will present themselves to you. You could seek out witnesses who talked to her before her disappearance. You could lean on Persimmons, who seems to be withholding something about her. Or you might use a technical skill like Energy Signatures to see if you can pick up the trail of her unique cybernetic equipment.
Interview scenes, whether they’re tough Interrogations of mutant prisoners or polite inquiries into Miskatonic University faculty politics, flow as a series of questions arising from new answers. If, as a player, you get an answer that doesn’t seem to lead to a new question, you may be missing an implication. Keep asking until you find a question big and juicy enough to pursue further—this is likely the core clue you need to move onto a new scene.
GUMSHOE character sheets, with their enticing list of abilities at which your characters display reliable ultra-competence, can prompt you to tackle a scene by wondering which of them might score key information. They are absolutely meant to be used as prompts for questions. Take care, however, to see that you don’t focus so completely on the abilities that you forget to look for questions arising from just-supplied answers.
Some groups tackle cases by writing clues on a whiteboard. If you do this, make sure you leave a big section to write in the biggest questions that still confront you. A stack of answers without questions quickly snarls into confusion. When you answer a question, erase it and replace it with the new one that answer implies.
In essence, you’re performing beat analysis, at least in regard to the question and reveal beats, on your case, as a means of solving it. By always looking at your mystery as a series of interlocking questions and corresponding answers, you can take command of the story’s emotional direction, rather than having the GM spoon feed it at you.