Joss Whedon has fallen out of favour among some nerds lately, who felt there were some problems with Avengers 2. Don’t let that convince you he’s not a ridiculously good writer, and here’s a few reasons why.
1. Talk in Designators
One thing I love about how Whedon writes, particularly post-Buffy is he nudges up against the edge of meta-fiction by bringing strong character archetypes from the subtext and into the text. It’s obvious when he’s doing it with things like Vampire Slayer and Zeppo, but it’s more subtle when he weaves it into dialogue and hides it in the strange faux-western cargo-culture dialect of Firefly, but it is still very much there (and adding flavour to said dialect). Let’s be bad guys, and do crime, they say. Characters are constantly referred to be their profession and roles – you’ll find captain being said more times on a rough trading boat then on the Enterprise, and for different reasons: it’s a psychological position and a cultural one, not just a title. You’ll see the same with obvious ones like doctor, shepherd, companion, browncoat, miners, mudders and criminals but also sister, husband and grandpa. It’s done so often that you notice it when it doesn’t happen – Kaylee is always called by her name and Inara never uses Mal’s title and Jubal Early never, ever refers to himself as anything but his name.
It’s a Whedon trademark not everyone likes but it can be punchy and subtle at the same time. It communicates both a lot of textual information and exposition while being great for setting up subtextual and metaphorical stakes. And it’s extremely well suited to RPGs. There’s an old D&D idea that there are game terms and in-setting terms and never the twain shall meet: the characters should never refer to people as fourteenth level ranger-clerics because how would they know that. But games are all about coded information, where words have enormous amounts of meaning behind them, and not bringing that meaning into the setting world, into the mouths of our characters, that’s an enormous waste. So much so that plenty of games went out of their way to make game mechanics explicit setting concepts, but you can do this with any game you’re playing. It’s not about getting meta and letting the characters know they are narratively powered, it’s about language choice being used to add punch to every line of dialogue. I mean, why live in a world where Detect Evil is a spell and not speak in those weighty, epic terms?
2. Use Visual Metaphors
Joss likes subtext, and it’s not just in his language like point one. What’s great about Firefly particularly is the whole thing was sculpted from the ground up to reflect that love of metaphor, and it begins with a horse-shaped ship and it ends with using the lighting techniques that blend light and dark around a morally dubious character. There’s a long line of literary analysts waiting to tell you that the sci-fi genre, for the most part, instead of replacing the Western in American culture simply reskinned it in borrowed robes but kept the same stories of frontiersmen and gunfights. It’s not true, though, and the way you can generally tell is the lighting. Westerns are fundamentally gothic novels about moral delineations, but instead of a creeping darkness of the Old World they have a starker, more brutal colour to them reflected in the light and the landscape, sepia tones cut with pitch black shadows and blinding suns. Long before the internet lost its mind about JJ Abrams’ lens-flare fetish, cinematographer David R. Boyd was using light and shadow and the camera lens to make the kind of visual poetry you barely even see on the large screen, let alone the small.
But what about roleplaying? Well, we all remember the passage in the “how to GM” guide that reminded us to not just to tell our players what they see, but also what they hear and smell and feel. But they usually forget to tell the players HOW they see it. How does the light fall? What highlights and shadows does it pick up? What stark tones or subtle shades? What’s the visual language of your setting? You don’t have to use movie terms to describe it, but it helps if you’re emulating a film genre. But if you’re of a literary bent, use your words. But remember that metaphors hide everywhere, not just in plot and dialogue, and, as we explained in the first of these, metaphors are your friend. It’s also not just for metaphors – the more you describe exactly HOW the shots are framed, the more you can put people into the mind of the film they are in. Playing a Matrix game without describing the fashion is madness. Yes, I just made your job harder but you have these tools available and they’re actually not that hard to apply once you learn they are there. Step up and paint with style, not just scope.
3. Poverty is the push
I complain about D&D a lot. It’s not so much because of what D&D is itself, but the fact that we’ve let it define so much of the hobby, often completely invisibly. It took us decades, for example, to move beyond making shopping the most important part of the game. Heck in some versions experience was directly linked to gold-coin-acquisition. It did make sense if you want to drive every single character to be hunting for treasure like Conan (a thief, mostly) but it often made games impossible to balance. A few good rolls on the loot table would leave the average adventurer richer than Croesus, and more importantly, never needing to adventure again. Yet every adventure module assumes they’re hungry for more. But I digress. The point is, rich people usually don’t make great stories. It’s Conan the King, not Conan the exceedingly well off who can now retire to his fine house. And in fact, this doesn’t just go for heroes; it goes for everyone in your setting. One of the reasons Warhammer is such a beloved setting is it feels tried, rundown, gritty, smelly and poor. Fantasy nerds like to (partly for the pun on short) quote Hobbes about life being “nasty, brutish and short” but forget that the first two words of that list are “solitary” and “poor”. And what Hobbes was describing was the Mad Max universe, specifically the 2nd film when there’s nothing left but (ahem) tiny points of light going out and wandering amoral murder hobos between them.
Yes, old-time religion, mad kings, terrifying wars and sneaky land deals can drive narratives as well, but all of those things tend to also produce poverty. The point is that very few good stories (not to mention realistic ones) start with everyone having their bellies full and their children safe. Bad stuff happens – narrative causing bad stuff – when people lack the basic assuredness of survival, the regular source of food and drink and shelter, and that poverty of existence not only drives every single plot in Firefly, it sets the tone of the whole universe. It feels like a bigger deal when Mal risks everything to sell not gold or guns but food to Patiences’ men. And you don’t think for a moment that the hillfolk’s paranoia or Jayne’s betrayal is unjustified when people are going hungry. Even universes that are about epic battles and ancient prophecies, like Star Wars, gain potency by at some point focusing on the poor dirt farmers and the smugglers in debt. The point is that poverty is the push for almost every strong emotive story. Wire it into your setting, point the camera at it regularly, and try as hard as you can not to give your PCs enough cash to be fed every week. They will fight ten times harder for a sandwich then they ever will for a gold limousine.
4. The Past Overshadows Everything
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Long ago, it was bad. Then it was good, then a new shadow arose. Whole lot of adventures begin like that. It’s part of the episodic nature of adventure modules, of course, but it’s crept into a lot of setting design as well. And for similar reasons – if things have only just begun to go bad again, then people can be from anywhere and the story can kind of start wherever. Plus, it’s always exciting to start at the beginning of the story, just as things are going bad, with bright new heroes, not the shaken veterans of the excitement that’s now sputtering out, lest we feel like the story is already told. So there’s this tendency for games to expect people to read buckets of history of the world but rarely for that history to leave a dark shadow, and recent and painful scars. But a lived-in, realistic and passionate story benefits from the shadows of the past. Ancient grudges break to new mutiny, and civil wars make civil hands unclean. If poverty makes people do bad and crazy things because they can’t be sure they’ll live to see tomorrow, this is the flipside – the other reason people will do bad and crazy things is because of the hurts that fell yesterday.
In Firefly, this is of course war, and the same goes for Star Wars. War tends to leave great, deep wounds that take decades to heal. And it doesn’t matter if you fought or not, because war drives the kind of deprivation that produces point 3 and not fighting is just as important in a war. Plagues, natural disasters, historic tilt moments, they don’t have to be just beginning or in full flight to be interesting. Sometimes it’s better for people and history to have already decided how they feel about them on the surface but not underneath. Of course, that’s the tricky part with this rule: wait too long and you’re back to the original problem, act too soon and it’s not history but current events. The solution is to remember that however long it was ago, to make sure the shadow is still there. It’s finished, the dust has settled, but people are still angry and sad about it. It’s good advice for characters too, not just settings. Ultimately, we’re all stuck in the past, still catching up with who we thought we were yesterday, and angry at the people who stopped us from being that.
5. Lay Lines to the Future
These days every show on television is planned and written around being an ongoing saga that leaves you always wanting more. It’s easy to forget that outside of soap opera, hardly anyone was doing series arcs in genre fiction before Joss Whedon. But this isn’t about slowly revealing the big bad or slowly tracking the moral rise and/or fall of a character. This is about using the future the same way you use the past in point four – to drive character action, set up current and future plot points and most importantly, to give PCs something to talk about. Just as we’re all shadowed by our pasts, big and small, we’re all shadowed by our futures, as well. Which is why every character on Firefly is often talking about where they’ve come from or where they’re going to, or where they can’t. The wheel never stops turning, as Mal tells Badger. Jayne says the money wasn’t good enough this time. Inara has her hidden needle, and talks about if she can’t do business on Serenity she’ll go elsewhere. Zoe wants a baby. Simon can’t go home.
And like I said, the point isn’t to give the GM ideas for future adventures or provide insight into your character’s hopes and dreams. The real purpose of the future, just like the past, is to key your character into the adventure that’s going on around her. It’s Zoe’s wanting to have a baby that makes Heart of Gold much more personal. It’s Simon’s longing to be a doctor that makes the subterfuge in Ariel sting. It’s Inara’s need to consider her working relationship with Mal that makes Atherton Wing’s offer in Shindig so potent. We often talk about how it’s the GMs job to build the world and story around the characters but it’s 100% your characters job as well. If the GM brings in an adventure element, it’s up to you to work out why it’s personal, and the two simplest ways are past hurts or future dreams. That’s the point of having all these scars and complexes, after all: to hang drama and action on them. Designing a series of traumas and then waiting for the GM to specifically engage them is just as stupid as designing an mystery and sitting back and doing nothing until the PCs stumble on exactly the right person to talk to. If you want drama, you have to go out and hunt it with a stick.
Firefly did a lot of things right but what it did best of all was setting up deep personal stakes with each adventure, so as to play up the moral landscape of the western, but also to draw us in very quickly to the characters so we wouldn’t get lost in the world. If you want to know why we still feel the Browncoat ache for what might have been, it’s because of this. It’s because between the shadows of the past, the unpredicability of poverty, and the dreams of the future, 13 episodes let us feel every agonising inch of these characters and how they hurt and how they fought and how they played. And that meant that the visual metaphors and the linguistic designators could take their full flight, to make the show be about the balance between dark and light, and the long dark walk along the edge of damnation.
If you want a memorable game campaign in thirteen sessions, you’d be wise to do the same.