Part three in a seemingly unending, inescapable series. Part One covered Archer and Part Two covered Leverage but with Jessica Jones hype going crazy I decided it was time to look back at what we learned from Le Homme De Sans Peur. Spoilers for series one herein.
1. Prologues Are Fun
Humans like repetition. That’s why call-back jokes are funny. Playing with timelines allows us to do the pre-call-back where we see something we know is important later, and we love seeing the pattern begin. This is why we love prologues, and a huge part of Daredevil’s fun was seeing him get his billy club, his costume, his nickname and so on. RPGs tend to trade on unpredictability, however, and that is part of their appeal: we never know where the dice and random player choices will take us so the story is always fluid, always unfolding. So how can we have the fun of prequels? The only way is to give up some of the predictability, but as Daredevil proves, there’s a powerful payoff for it, so don’t be afraid to do so. You can actually start your characters at a point in their lives and then run a flashback to how they acquired their stats but an even simpler way is simply to plan ahead. We have a bad habit of designing our characters fully-formed, beginning with all their accessories, abilities, allies and resources in place, because that’s fair and point-balanced and we feel awesome. But what if you designed that character, and then went back in time for the first X sessions? You know at the end everyone will end up equally cool, but now you get to find out how and why those things come into your life. Took telekinesis? Play out the adventure where it first happens and you suddenly can read minds. Wear a costume? Have the scene with a dressmaker (like Edna Mode) discusses options. This doesn’t distract from the plot it becomes the plot – Edna is how Mrs Incredible finds her husband, remember? Over the Edge taught us that every stat should have a visible tic expressing it somehow, but every stat can also have a backstory and it’s better to play that backstory so it emerges naturally and so you experience it. Write it and it’s just a stat. Live it, and it matters.
2. Levels Are For Stories Too
Levels, like classes, have a bad reputation in gaming, and for good reason: they can kill games dead. Too often we think in this theoretical world of gamification where XP is only reason people play and not handing it out would be anathema and then before we know it our heroes have outgrown our campaign and nothing seems to matter any more. You can’t motivate them to save the princess when they could punt the king into the next country with zero consequences. Daredevil shows us leveling done right: it’s subtle because the universe expands around him as he goes. He starts off taking a beating from fairly low level street thugs and ends taking a beating from an extremely tough ninja – which is why his battle with Madam Gao’s men went a lot better than his battle with the Russians much earlier on. Part of this is simply making sure your opponents also level up, of course, but the other part is making sure your story levels up. The ninja isn’t just tougher to be tougher, he’s tougher because he’s the head of the Yakuza, and is one step closer to Fisk. You don’t have to link it directly to the opponent in question, of course; the fight to take down the Russians is hard because Fisk sics the cops on Matt, which makes the fight an equivalent level of how important it is to unlock Owlsley, the next step to Fisk. Every time the difficulty level of the game goes up, they do so in parallel with more being revealed about the bad guy and with the stakes rising. We never get to meet the girl the Russians took but we get to know Mrs Cardenas personally because we’re now another step up – and finally the last victim is Ben Urich is all-but a PC. Daredevil’s 13 episodes are a masterwork on how to structure a plot that unfolds in stages with perfect clockwork, something we’re getting a lot more of now that the new TV lets writers plan their whole shows out in advance (True Detective also does this well). If you’ve got a level system, you have the same deal: a number of discrete episodes which have to happen in order. You must make sure your plot levels up each time the players do.
3. Know How To Lose A Fight
Level-appropriate fights are not an exact science. Especially if you want your game to feel scary, gritty and dangerous. But players tend to see RPGs as a game, and in a game you lay down your forces against the opponent and fight until one person wins. Some games have rules for resigning but most games of chess go to checkmate or stalemate as the expectation. But in most RPGs, our resource at hand is life points and if we fight until we lose we get the dreaded Total Party Kill which is awesome but also kills the fun. But one of the things that made Daredevil great was the sense of cost and difficulty, which meant he got beat down a lot. He lost a lot of fights and those he won he did with the kind of damage that would have ganked the mage in the party for sure. The writers could do this because they wrote in ways for Daredevil to lose without it seeming unbelievable (the inevitable James Bond excuse where they don’t instantly kill him for no reason) or blocking the story from progressing. Clare “Night Nurse” Temple is a character who exists to let Daredevil lose fights and make that interesting and plot-driving, and his deal with the dying Anatoly allowed him to survive a fight he knew he couldn’t win. Daredevil’s vigilante status also means he has to run a lot, and he’s willing to dive into rivers and sewers and dumpster to hide and catch his breath. If you want your game to be gritty you need the PCs to lose fights and they’re not going to do that just because the odds are against them: you have to build narrative architecture into your story so that losing feels awesome and doesn’t cost them too much. System architecture can also help, like the Hero Points in Mutants and Masterminds that you only get for being beaten, but without fluff architecture (to coin a phrase) it won’t have nearly as much resonance.
4. Bad Guys Have Their Own Issues
The stakes are high, the difficulty immense, the cost enormous. Everything about Daredevil tells us that his task is impossible, which is why it’s so powerful when he succeeds. Watching the Kingpin go from untouchable, godlike shadowy mastermind to a man without allies or empire or standing, broken and bloody at Daredevil’s feet was a hell of a cathartic arc. You also want your players to feel they too have achieved the impossible and brought down the gods themselves, but there is always a risk in overselling your villain: you can stretch believability that he would fall, no matter how someone fights. Indeed, Daredevil hammers home again and again how impossible it is to fight Fisk and win. Yet we never feel it is unbelievable that he falls. Why? Because Daredevil isn’t the only factor in play. Owlsley is a sneak. The Russians are temperamental. Madam Gao is cautious. The Yakuza have their own stuff going on. And most importantly, Fisk has weaknesses. He’s distracted by newfound love. He’s emotionally fragile which causes him to start a war with the Russians when he didn’t need it. His need to stay out of the public eye makes him vulnerable to exposure. He committed a crime and has gone unpunished. He has a mother that can expose him. He’s invisible because he’s a Rabbit in a Snow Storm, and when the snow is gone, his white fur is exposed to owls(leys). You absolutely want to sell your villains to your PCs as unstoppable badasses that they cannot imagine how to destroy. But then you need to give them the hint of hope by giving those bad guys a weakness. Make their lieutenants or goons disloyal or afraid so the PCs get the idea of turning them against their master. Make their base be on an unstable volcano (to avoid detection?) so that they get the idea of making the volcano erupt. This is much better than the villain making a stupid mistake like letting the heroes live or falling in love with one of them or standing too close to the monster cage, or having the PCs be forced to come up with some outlandish deux ex machina. Ghostbusters was a great film, but it would have been better if Ray had realized in prison, say, that the telemetric structure of the building created an unstable vortex, that the very power needed to summon Gozer meant you could overload the circuit. You don’t want bringing down a god to feel like cheating.
5. Puns Are Power
Puns have a bad reputation. Mostly because they’re the easiest joke for children to learn (and one that helps them learn as they see how the language they are developing can have two meanings or can sound the same) so they’re usually done in a childish manner. But there’s a reason that writers as deft as Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer and Pratchett use puns so often. It’s because puns are a form of subtext, and subtext is the greatest thing humanity has ever invented, in my opinion, which is why I fell in love with Daredevil the moment I saw the title of episode two, “Cut Man”. What’s the use of subtext, though? It’s not just a linguistic stunt to make the writer (and the audience) seem clever; subtext exists so you can send information on as many levels as possible, producing a more nuanced and rich portrait of your characters and narrative. Linking Fisk to a rabbit and his rival to an owl told us about Fisk’s vulnerability both temporally and psychologically. Having him break eggs to make an omelet made him sympathetic as it reflects his grander vision. Having Matt Murdock be blind tells us how important law and justice is to the character. And these things work on you subconsciously without you even noticing them. Are such subtleties worth playing with in an RPG? Depends on how much your players want to listen, but you should never throw away a way to communicate. Warhammer is full of puns but they serve a purpose: the castle is called Wittgenstein so you get a hint they are trying to reanimate the dead (sounds like Frankenstein). A character is named after Margaret Thatcher so you know she’s evil. And so on. These cues tell you how to play the game in the most dramatically and narratively appropriate ways, and can guide you even subconsciously to the most satisfying story and character moments – and make those matters resonate further because they’re hitting two parts of your brain at once instead of just one.
Supers in particular are built on coded imagery and visual subtext, not to mention actual visual and verbal supertexts like having your bad guy called Dr Doom, so they would be bereft without rich visual and verbal puns. But it doesn’t stop with supers. Indeed, perhaps the most important lesson of Daredevil is that supers is now an extremely unfixed genre that tells you nothing about the style of the story, which is why Daredevil felt more like the Wire than a four-colour comic. The point is: great storytelling is never genre-specific. Puns work everywhere. Prequel call backs are fun everywhere. Unfolding villain weaknesses and story structure work everywhere. And every hero gets more awesome if can take a licking now and then. These are your tools. Without them, you’re flying blind.
See what I did there?