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Fun with Counterpoint

May 15, 2007

Over at Story Games, I wrote:

    So I was having beers with Chris Lehrich on Monday. We were talking about the state of RPG theory. And Chris was bringing up a comparison to early (say, late medieval, early renaissance) music theory, since he’s been reading a lot about music semiotics.

    So then I go, “Yeah, in RPG theory, we haven’t even gotten to Bach yet.”

    And Chris was like, “Yeah, think of all the great madrigals that were written. Great stuff and important for what later developed, but it was all rendered much less important by things like counterpoint.”

That got me thinking about the equivalent of counterpoint in roleplaying, having multiple narrative threads dancing around each other, sometimes juxtaposed in harmony, sometimes juxtaposed in contrast, but interesting and powerful for being simultaneous and providing a more complex experience of play — with your attention constantly shifting between them — than a single narrative thread.

Which brought me to an improv technique that’s sometimes called “split screen,” where you divide the stage into different sets in your mind and have different events take place in different imaginary “locations” at the same time, all on the same stage. This is actually a theater technique in general, not just something limited to improv, and is used a lot in plays like Equus to do flashbacks or to contrast or compare the distinct experiences of different characters. And I don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t work in roleplaying, especially in games where players have the power to frame their own scenes and don’t need a GM to do so.

So, I think, in Good Ship Revenge, there’s a certain order that players frame scenes in, where, say, Player A goes first, then Player B, then Player C, etc. However, Player B can start framing their scene before Player A is finished with theirs, creating overlap or even a “scene within a scene,” because Player B’s scene might end before Player A’s.

I think, at this point, we need an example, to make sure I’m being clear:

    Player A (Anne): So Jack and Mary, who’s disguised as a handsome young man, are pondering a fat merchant ship that just appeared off the starboard horizon.

    Player B (Jack): “Finally, a bit of luck! You, boy, look to be a sprightly lad. What say you scramble up the mast there and run up our colors so those Spanish dogs will be sure to shit themselves rotten as we pursue them all the way to hell!

    Player C (Mary): “Aye, sir.” Mary checks the chest that normally carries Jack’s trademark flag, a white skull with crossed sabers. “Cap’n… where be the colors?”

    Player B (Jack): Simultaneous Flashback: Anne seeks out Mary in the hold, where Mary is counting the most recent plunder. Anne has a sheet of familiar looking black cloth draped over her and something wicked on her mind.

    Player A (Anne): Anne opens up the flag to show that handsome young lad that she’s not wearing anything underneath.

    Player C (Mary): “Oh… God,” Mary groans.

    Player A (Anne): Framing scene continues: Jack is frantically searching his cabin for his flag.

    Player B (Jack): “Of all the moldy whores in Singapore!” He throws several expensive looking vases to the deck, where they shatter. “When I find the man who stole my colors, I’ll cut him a new mouth in his middle and feed him a steel sandwich directly into his innards!”

    Player C (Mary): Before, in the hold: Mary and Anne are having a grand time wrapped together in Jack’s flag. Right now the only thing that’s visible is Anne’s head, because Mary is doing unspeakably pleasurable things to her underneath the black cloth.

    Player A (Anne): Now, on deck: Anne finally wonders up from the hold, dressed but a little disheveled, since she’s put her clothes back on in rather a hurry. “What’s all this racket about, Jack?”

Something like that, anyway.

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2 comments

  1. I’m really excited about this! Dying to see how you implement it.


  2. I have no idea what’s going on in that sequence!

    I get some of it, but not enough to fully grasp and run with.

    Also, I disagree with some of your theory ideas



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