It’s been a long time between Five Things. Sorry about that, I was getting some games published and setting up a patreon and trying to fix my website. Website still coming. Also, writing a game about the Old West, which came out great (pledge to the patreon for your copy) and a supplement for Daughters of Exile, which would by the way make a great game for playing Westworld, if you’re into that. But enough about me. Let’s talk about Overwatch. Because it’s not just films and TV shows and novels we can learn from…
Overwatch uses a trope that is well worn, but like most well-worn tropes, it’s well worn for a reason. Once upon a time, things were good, then they got all messed up, but maybe, now, they’ll be better. Once there was Overwatch, then it broke into pieces, now it’s back. This is a lovely combination of ideas because it produces instant nostalgia, paired with the beginning of the new, which are the two strongest forces of attachment there are. We ache for the past, we long for the new. (It’s the pattern of security and adventure.) In sonata form, this is called recapitulation. Sonata form was developed during the Classical period of music, when people tried to hone music down to a science, to pick out the mathematically perfect elements of what made the emotions soar, without completely losing the complexity of Baroque music that came before. In sonata form, a harmony is exposited, then it is developed, then comes the recapitulation. Basically, the tone is set, then the harmony is broken, and we ache, at a primal level, for the harmony to return…the development holds us in this ache…and then gives us the release as it resolves to the original harmony and restates the exposition. Mozart is really good at this – listen as he sets you up, leaves you hanging, then brings you back.
It sounds ludicrously simple but the best tricks always are. And apart from the obvious human need for closure, it’s useful to understand why it works so well. How it combines our love for the old and the new, and how that provides a sense of history. Before we’ve even played a single game of Overwatch, we feel like we’re stepping into something old, yet something also about to start, at the same time. That familiarity makes it feel comfortable, which makes it much easier to learn all the new things. How can you use this in your games? It’s not just enough to have a big epic setting behind the scenes, you have to wire people into it. You have to craft scenes where players get connected to that history. We saw in the trailers Winston missing his friends, the two kids marveling at the museum. You have to put your players in the museum. Let them feel the weight of history. Then have history come crashing through their ceiling, and into the future.
2. Unity Over Division
The theme of Overwatch is “unity”. That is what the recapitulation is all about. They had unity, then they lost it, now they’re bringing it back. Well, sort of. Reaper and Widowmaker don’t want to come to the party, but unity is still the big calling card. You could see this as simply a nod to the fact that it’s a team game, but so was Team Fortress 2, and it divided the world into a Road Runner/Coyote battle between red vs blue. And there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s certainly better for comedy, for starters, but it is less emotional. Overwatch made us care, and not just through nostalgia. Competition is simple and fun but it doesn’t really hit us deep down in our values. Unity does. And that gave the game more heart, the kind of heart that sucks us in and makes us write fan fiction. The stuff that woobies are made of. Other powerful emotions rock through Overwatch too – betrayal, loss, loneliness, betrayal, shame, confusion…and it’s a good rule to put these kinds of things into your games too, to help people connect to the setting. But it’s tricky. Some emotions are just harder to build in a collection of chuckleheads rolling dice around the table.
But one emotion that isn’t hard to build is unity. A lot of RPG design and play focuses on difference and differentiation. Much of traditional roleplaying is built on how character A and character B have different skill sets and power sets that can compliment each other. It’s standard to see a party with halflings, elves, dwarfs and humans all on the same quest. So it’s important in all this division to lay strong grounds of unity. Most rule books suggest parties should have some cohesive overarching narrative to stick together but we’re so used to Random Bunches of Wandering Murderhobos teaming up because they’re next to each other we forget to do it all the time. And games often devolve into shouting at each other and arguing about the plan until everyone gets unified into a combat scene because they can all agree the goal is to kill the orcs. Apply the same structure there is in combat OUTSIDE combat: everyone has different skills but they need clear goals and reasons to unite. Build it into the setting and even the mechanics if you have to. Too many games have died at their birth when the players have gone “wait, why do we hang around each other then?”. Stress unity so this doesn’t happen.
3. The Victory Lap
Blizzard is not a game that innovates a great deal. Their strength is in looking at what innovations other games are doing, and then taking the best of that. And arguably, perfecting it. One example of the latter is the way every game of Overwatch ends. First of all, we get the team pose. That’s more important than it sounds. Old arcade games used to do that too, and it mattered. It made us feel cool because there we were, on screen, being cool! It’s a small thing, but it actually matters a lot. So does the play of the game. Not so much for who wins it but just because it’s reminiscing. It’s instant nostalgia (see point one), right after instant unity (point 2). Then we have the bit where you vote for who was awesome, and you can vote for the other team! Hello sportsmanship mechanics, plus also a way to share energy. Creative theatre and improv sessions I’ve worked in encourage group energy building by sharing what we liked of other people’s activities and performances. It builds nostalgia, and it builds memory as you replay in your head the best moments and all the feels you created, helping you lodge them into long term memory.
How do you do this at the game table? You already do, I bet. Everyone likes to talk about that great die roll when the orc’s head came flying off. But you probably don’t do it enough, and you might not do it the right way. We all know that nobody wants to hear about your awesome character, because outside the game it doesn’t mean anything. And that’s the problem – you’re pushing the energy out, when it needs to go in. Take time to talk about what was awesome, at the end of the session, in chats between sessions, and at the start of the next one. Recaps tend to suck, nobody wants to jump in and explain, and all that people remember is the BAD things, usually (because that’s how our minds work). Don’t do that. Start – and END – every session not just by summing up the plot (and all the other organising trivia): take a moment to recap (short for recapitulate, seriously) the highlights. Strike a pose. Count coup. Upvote your favourites.
4. Character is Made From Contradictions
Overwatch punches above its weight in the character and story regard. In tiny little portraits it connects us to characters and gives us all the feels about them. How? With contradiction. With the break in the harmony, that has no recapitulation, and thus leaves us aching to heal their pain. What am I babbling about? Everybody’s got two sides. Winston is a big gruff killing machine – who we first saw as a tiny baby, showing off his keen mind and curiosity, which made him a great scientist. Tracer is upbeat and positive, despite her life being wracked by the tragedy of her time accident. Genji is a mechanical monster murdered by his brother, but has a good heart. Hanzo is a killer, haunted by his crimes. Bastion is a killing machine with a heart of an innocent. Reinhardt is a killing machine with the bad back of an old man. Even the villains have it: Widowmaker was brainwashed. Reaper was a good guy driven bad by jealousy. Every one is a one-two punch.
They sound familiar, but again, they’re familiar for a reason. The one-two punch is really good for instant character generation. Not only does the disharmony tug at our heartstrings, it gives them an immediate appearance of depth. We can see inner conflict, which we recognise in ourselves, and which will naturally drive stories. The way to use this in your games is to use it, if only as the initial sketch, for all your characters, PCs or NPCs alike. Come up with a one-two contradiction punch. And just because it’s familiar and simplistic doesn’t mean it can’t be subtle, deep and meaningful. A vengeful son who hesitates to strike is the one-two punch of Hamlet, and he’s famous for being complicated. Having two heads to your character also makes it easier for you to go along with whatever the story hook (and you SHOULD go along with it) – if one side won’t, the other side probably will find a reason to.
5. Don’t Be Afraid To Be Silly
Someone reminded me recently that the silly option is often the best one. Or at least, should not be off the table. It doesn’t matter what mood you’re going for, humans are silly creatures and if we don’t find something silly we will add it ourselves. So yes, you look at Overwatch and go okay I buy the gorilla and the robot but why is there a World of Warcraft dwarf and a cowboy? The answer is because they’re fun. This isn’t just the Rule of Cool though, but the Rule of Silly is worth adding to that one – the very silliness of the concept helps sell it, and silly is an important steam valve we welcome a lot more than we think we do. And we also like cool, too, which cowboys and dwarfs certainly are. Blizzard could have played it safe and cancelled those characters as not really fitting their hyper-modern almost-SF anime stylings, but they didn’t, because they recognised that players are players, and players like certain things. Cowboys and dwarfs, for example. And you gain as much in fun involvement, probably much more, than you lose in any break in “atmosphere”.
This doesn’t mean that atmosphere is worth nothing; Tobjorn has been adjusted to fitting with the weapons designers of the settings and McCree doesn’t look like Jack Marston. Tone and style matters. But as GMs we can all at times be guilty of not getting how a players idea fits with tone or style and we so want to make a deep emotional impression we pump the brakes. But the cowboy option is powerful for two reasons: One, because its player-facing, because it appeals to the kind of player who wants to do this so badly, and will love you forever for letting them, and will love their character all the more for being “allowed” to do it, that extra sense of permission and “rules breaking” adding extra fire to their connection with their character. Two, because as mentioned silly is a valve we all need, and it can make your game feel stronger in all sorts of tiny ways. It can heighten the darkness when set against it, and release the tension when it gets too much, and it helps the players feel that anything can happen. Silly is a key fuel for suspension of disbelief, in other words. Don’t count it out.
It’s a tool, like all the others, that lets players feel connected to their characters. That’s what Overwatch did in a few short strokes: made you fall in love with the characters. The rules help, but they punched out from the get-go with characters you want to ship, who have punchy contradictions, who are silly fun but cut with sorrow, hitting all our buttons at once. Plus the story combines nostalgia with excitement and hits our value centre by focusing on our loyalty to the tribe strand – and helps us connect to each other by sharing the love. You wish your games leapt out so quickly to engage our sense of fun, wonder, sharing and tragedy in a few splashes. But don’t just wish: take notes, and make it so.