Telling Stories: Importing tone

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.There are a lot of things that I like about IDW’s current run of Transformers comics, but one of the things I like the most is the sense of tone.  Scott, Roberts, and Barber all have their own voices when writing stories, but they also all do a great job of creating the feel of a unified setting, with characters all working in the same space seven as they don’t necessarily share the same goals.  It’s heady stuff, well worth importing into roleplaying.

Obviously, I can’t import it directly into roleplaying due to the sad lack of a Transformers MMO (thanks for that, Jagex), but I can bring in parts of the tone.  Which is one of those things that doesn’t really get discussed much when it comes to roleplaying, despite the fact that it really lies at the heart of most imports.  When you’re bringing a character from other media into a game you’re playing, you’re hoping to bring some of the story developments and energy that they have in their original appearance, trying to carry that tone along with them.

He'd never make it through Xavier's superheroic prep school.  Probably.

Also, that posture is terrible.

Since I like to make my points with examples, here’s an obvious one – Superman.  You know who Superman is.  And you probably also know that despite years of trying, we’ve never seen the equivalent of Superman in the Marvel universe.  Why is that?

To gloss a complex and fascinating idea, it’s because while you can make a character in the Marvel universe with all of Superman’s powers and a close enough origin – heck, you could even go ahead and just have Clark Kent working at the Daily Planet in New York – you aren’t bringing over that tone.  DC characters are defined by being archetypes, and the ultimate triumph at the end is always supposed to be that the good guys won and things are all right again.  By contrast, in a Marvel comic the good guys are just the guys doing what they thing is good, and you can’t place that moral certainty at the heart of a character.  The tone is wrong, even if the notes are right.

When done correctly, this can actually lead to some marvelous dramatic tension – Spec Ops: The Line makes a great go of dropping in a character who has created a narrative in his head of being the Crusading American Savior despite being in a completely different story.  But it also should make it clear how much tone affects characters, and how relevant it can be to import a tone rather than just characters.

Starting a new tabletop campaign makes it pretty easy to set the tone right from the go, of course.  If I start a new game and tell everyone to watch Pacific Rim before we start playing, you can be fairly certain that the campaign is going to have the big good-natured stompy heart of classic sentai shows; if I tell you to watch some videos of Front Mission, it’s safe to say that we’re not going to be doing energetic mecha-stomping like that.  But when you’re dealing with an online game, you have the twin problems of what the game already establishes as a tone, however broad, and the people that you’re already interacting with.

Which is not to say that you can’t.

There's a recursion thing at work here, obviously.  You like the characters that feed into the tone you lie, and other stories that share that tone... et cetera.

Some characters lend themselves to this quite naturally, of course.

The key here is twofold: finding out what parts of the tone you like and that you can port over, and finding ways to establish this through interactions with others that aren’t using the same playbook.  You can’t dictate how others play the game or roleplay their characters, but you can bring over elements all by your lonesome.  Once you understand the parts you can properly port over, anyhow.

Since I created the obvious example, let’s go ahead and look at it: bringing the tone of More than Meets the Eye into Final Fantasy XIV roleplaying.  Right at the start, you have some pretty huge incompatibilities.  The former is a planet-hopping adventure full of characters on a shipboard home, while Final Fantasy XIV is something of an adventure but definitely not as tied to a single location or group.  That sense of crew camaraderie and the end of a war that had raged for millenia is not going to port over.

What can port over, however, are several other aspects, like the sense that the people chosen for tasks are frequently not the right choices.  The way that the various individuals play off of one another in sometimes unusual ways.  Quirky personalities filtered through unusual circumstances.  The sense that this is, at its heart, a romp – just a romp that also involves a large number of people dying and genuine love and loss.

Sure, you can’t bring the story or the plot points from the story into the game.  But you can have your character react to new situations as if they were in that story, and that alone gets you a good chunk of the way there.  Without altering the fundamental tone of the world that you’re playing in, you can create a little bit more of that flavor, a dash of what you see elsewhere.

Plenty of things from MtMtE don’t fit in FFXIV.  The slow accumulation of emotional and mental baggage, the idea of character quirks taking on larger roles, being a sort of an island even while surrounded by others – all of that works quite well.  And the net result is that giving your character all of those traits brings you a little closer to the source material

The thing is, this solves both problems nicely.  When you’re treating your character with a bit of the flavor that made you like a story so much, you get some of that tone right away.  And while you can’t make everyone else play along, you encourage and work well with the players and characters who naturally fit in with what you’re trying to do.  It’s not a matter of vastly rearranging an existing character, just a matter of giving that existing character a slightly different filter to interact with the world.

And possibly just two facial expressions, wherein the second is just an angrier version of the first.

Next time around, I want to explore giving your characters new skills and talents or even nailing down what they’re capable of without turning them into magical fix-everything machines.  The week after that, let’s talk about offscreen assumptions.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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