Home > RPGs as a Medium > The Circular 4th Wall

The Circular 4th Wall

November 24, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I liked Ocean’s 11. I also liked the two sequels. They didn’t change my life, and I know there are people who think they’re drivel, but I thought they were fun. I also like a lot of Ben Bova’s novels, the main characters of which are often scientists. Similarly, the Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy with very exciting geology going on (well, strictly speaking, it’s areology). Okay. That’s probably enough links to satisfy my neurotic need to supply context.

In thinking about what worlds it might be fun to play in and what kinds of stories it might be fun to tell, I often harvest fiction that I’ve enjoyed consuming. I’d heard a snatch of Caravan one day, which always puts Ocean’s 11 in my mind, and it occurred to me that running a campaign with a similar goal about similar characters would be fun. So I started brainstorming.

Eventually, I hit a problem: The part of those movies that is most fun is that you’re watching a plan unfold that you only vaguely understand. Then, things seem to go way off the rails and things get tense. In the end, though, it turns out that Danny was so smart that he anticipated various turns of events and the plan incorporated them. Seeing him be so clever is fun (and for those of us that imagine ourselves clever, as I think many people do, it tells us that smart overcomes all obstacles).

The key point I’m trying to make, here, is that the rockmost of watching the Ocean’s 11 crew work is the reveal. They know something that the audience doesn’t and the revealing of that knowledge and subsequent application of it makes them seem smart. A similar phenomenon occurs frequently in a certain class of SciFi stories (like the afore mentioned Bova and Robinson works): a main character knows about some aspect of the world that the reader does (and often can) not. For a particularly heavy handed and over-used example, see any Star Trek episode where Geordi saves the ship. The Next Generation examples fall flat because the big win comes from the audience gaining the understanding that the characters had all along.

After analyzing this story telling method, I’ve come to realize that it pretty much cannot be used in a collaborative setting. Which was both disappointing (because I like this device when done well) and exciting (because I think I’ve spotted a unique challenge in telling stories with RPGs). The nature of the players is that they are audience and actors simultaneously. This, at the suggestion of Stewart, I have started referring to as the “circular fourth wall”.

If a PC knows something crucial to the plot that a player does not and, trying to mimic the Ocean’s 11-style reveal, it comes up at a tense moment… well, then what? Do you just tell the player what his character has known all along? That doesn’t rockmost; in fact, you just stole the spotlight from the player.

Do you try to set up the knowledge ahead of time so that the player has it, but maybe doesn’t think it’s important? This is hard to do and also risky. If it works and they learn the information but don’t think it’s important they may not bring it up at the appropriate time (use of the phrase “appropriate time” is also a warning sign that you may be over-scripting).

Other times, this kind of leading the player into the situation just isn’t possible: Consider the scene where Danny is taken by the Big Bad into a room to get beaten up by a Tough Looking Biker. It is revealed pretty quickly that Danny somehow arranged to have that guy get hired by the Big Bad and to, instead, help Danny. Well, if Danny did that, then Danny’s player should probably have been there and known about it. So there is no reveal (I’m not saying it wouldn’t be cool, just not as cool).

Note that I’m not saying the story of Ocean’s 11 couldn’t be told around a table with dice. I’m just saying that you couldn’t tell it in quite the same way. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, since it’s a rather fledgling idea of mine.

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Categories: RPGs as a Medium
  1. November 24, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    Slightly off-topic, but if based on your first paragraph, I think you would really like The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. It is just the kind of mission driven mystery/adventure you describe.

    • Ben
      November 24, 2009 at 4:40 pm

      I’ve heard about it before, but not described that way. It’s been on The List for a while now. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Rob
    November 27, 2009 at 10:56 am

    I really like this Circular Fourth Wall concept. I think you may be on to something about our form of storytelling.

    FWIW, when I want to have a player be able (but never required) to make a reveal I like to build it out of their backstory. I often have back channel (email) discussions with players about their characters. When I want something to come up in an upcoming adventure I couch the “reveal information” as part of developing that background. There will also be red herrings, which sometimes take on a life of their own and mutate into future hooks. When I’m really on form the necessary information will appear tangential or as a setup for something else.

    • Ben
      November 28, 2009 at 9:31 pm

      Yeah! Back story reveals are great and much easier (which is to say possible at all) to get going. Somewhere in here, we’ll write a post about our guidelines for creating good PCs, and a comprehensive back story is a major part of that. When you do it right, as you alluded, you can take something the player mentioned off hand and end up making it matter a lot or luck into some aspect of your story that matches with something in their back story and have a player effectively write part of your game for you. Fun stuff. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  1. January 6, 2010 at 5:03 pm
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