Scope, Scale, & Stakes, Longer Thoughts

While Mattias was telling me about a game he’s preparing for, and the layers of growth and reveal that he has planned, he reminded me of terminology I’d first learned in Kenneth Hite’s 3rd ed. GURPS Horror sourcebook (this links to the 4th ed.). Page 71 of the 3rd edition book introduces “scope” and “scale,” two narrative concepts widely applicable to stories beyond horror-gaming. They’re not necessary for good narrative construction or fun gaming, but they’re extremely useful for both analysis and planning. They’re also likely to show up regardless of whether you intend them to or not, and manipulating them is a straightforward way to change tension in a story.

It’s worth noting that scope and scale are related to but separate from stakes. I’ll cover changing scope, scale, and stakes to affect tension later.

First, I’m going to roughly quote Hite’s definitions of scale and scope, and then follow up with a definition of stakes.

In Hite’s usage, scale is “the level at which protagonists are interacting with the world, and the results of their actions upon it.” Characters operating on a prosaic scale are struggling for their lives and hoping to simply get by, while characters operating on an epic scale are larger than life and deciding the fate of countries or worlds. Scale is a measure of the grandiosity of a character’s actions, and it’s possible to operate on multiple scales simultaneously, or to change scale rapidly without detracting from a story. As an example of multiple simultaneous scales, a hero might struggle to survive the onslaught of a demon (prosaic), knowing that if she can withstand it and defeat it she will change the fate of her world (epic).

Meanwhile, Hite defines scope as “what the PCs can see,” meaning the boundaries of their awareness or the perceived importance of their actions. If a story’s characters only know about the spread of a dangerous cult in a small town, or a single person on the run from one person who wants them dead, that’s a fairly narrow scope. The scope is broader if the story’s characters know that this dangerous cult is the latest outgrowth of a wider group bent on finding a potent mystical artifact in the town, or if that person on the run holds a larger power which might ultimately defeat the nation which sent their hunter to murder them. Furthermore, it’s useful to distinguish between a story’s visible scope (what we’d usually just call scope, and what characters are aware of at any given time, like “there’s a cult in this town”) and the story’s actual scope (what the characters might discover, like “this cult is just the tip of the iceberg”).

Stakes, meanwhile, are whatever is in jeopardy, at risk, or to be gained by a course of action. A story’s stakes inform the scale and scope, though it’s possible for them to operate independently. For example, the life of that person on the run is relatively small stakes, and a story about keeping them alive might have a prosaic scale. But as the characters’ visible scope expands (through gaining more information about the world) and the characters recognize their position in a larger story, the stakes increase and the scale at which the characters are operating may take on multiple levels. In that above example, the characters’ struggle to save the person’s life is prosaic, but may ultimately have epic consequences.

Not every story needs scale, scope, or stakes to change. Sometimes we just want something picaresque, episodic, or repetitive. But I think those repetitive stories are less popular than ones in which scale, scope, and stakes change and grow.

And even within those more repetitive stories, there are often changes to the characters’ visible scope: the characters recognize that “X is bigger than we’d thought,” and thus the stakes (and tension) rise. This change in visible scope can happen for characters and audience simultaneously or separately, but it most often happens for characters shortly before the story’s climax. In the denouement following the climax, the visible scope often recedes once again, as various plot threads are tied up and completed. Characters may still know that something greater is going on, or that events are operating at a larger scale, but their access to that broader scope usually diminishes with their part in that larger story.

So, expanding stakes and visible scope are straightforward ways to heighten tension. Focusing on the prosaic scale is also useful for heightening tension, even as it often expands alongside scope and stakes. Remember: expansion of scale is okay, because characters can operate on multiple scales at once… and can feel more relatable by struggling in prosaic conflicts despite possessing epic powers.

Because variation in tension is considered de rigueur in most adventure and dramatic genres, those stories generally thrive on changes in scope and scale. This is especially true of long-running stories that involve character empowerment, or which cover new ground; without that variation in tension, and believable changes in characters’ scale and visible scope, audiences lose interest. Similarly, arbitrarily or too-frequently returning to prosaic scale and stakes will eventually rob that technique of its tension. The eighteenth time Batman fights a dangerous baddie isn’t as tense as the first time.

What does that mean for us as writers or storytellers?

We can plan for expansions of scale, scope, and stakes. And when I say plan, I really mean “have a very general idea of what might change.” If you’re making stories collaboratively, e.g. playing RPGs, it’s best to leave little hints and clues for you to pull on later and tie into something bigger for the players to discover. It’s not necessary to know how those things will work, or what they’ll connect to when you put them there! You could do all that work, but then you run the risk of never having players discover anything you made because they wanted to go elsewhere or follow other clues.

If you leave little hints and tidbits lying around, and have general ideas of what the larger scope, scale, and stakes might look like, it’s easier to put everything together when the time comes and players finally follow those leads. A villain’s ties to a larger organization or their correspondence with an unnamed person are useful here. Likewise, when the PCs learn the specific modus operandi for a particular group and recognize that elsewhere in a new situation, they’ll often connect the dots and identify the relation between the two. It’s all about building up the skills and world-knowledge of your players (or audience), and letting them draw the connection and feel that frisson of understanding (and maybe dread).

This has gone longer than I’d anticipated. I suspect there’s more material here. I may revisit the topic.

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Duality and Thematic Tension in RPGs: Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts

I’ve recently been working on a swords & sorcery-inspired Apocalypse World (AW) hack, trying to create something which fits the themes present in Robert E Howard’s Conan stories, Steven Brust’s Taltos novels, and Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories. In doing this, I’ve had an interesting realization about the construction of AW and the games it has inspired: dualistic tension in the games’ principles drives the dramatic and thematic tension which fuels their best stories.

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Barium Deep Edits

This is the first time that I’ve not written one of Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenges since January (with the exception of the times when I’ve been working at summer camp without internet, but even then I think I got lucky and he didn’t post a challenge).  I feel weird, honestly.  I had ideas for this week’s challenge, but I’ve been so busy for the past few days…

Instead, I offer you the newly edited version of Barium Deep.  It hasn’t been deeply revised, and there are more changes to come, but I think I’ve managed to improve the piece’s clarity and presentation.  Let me know if you like it!

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Flash Fiction: Barium Deep

Gorgeous artwork by George Hull, for the game Star Citizen

I didn’t write the following bit of space drama with the above image in mind, but it’s a beautiful fit anyway.  What follows is another piece of “middle grade” fiction, one that holds true to the more classically action-adventure oriented stories that I usually like to tell.  Enjoy!

(Note: There’s now a great deal of other Barium Deep material here. This is the edited version of this same post, and this is the collection of other posts linked to Barium Deep.)

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Aliens: A Love Letter to Ripley

What a masterpiece.  Aliens is one of those few movies that I can watch again and again, an exceptionally good high-tension thriller in which you will learn to hate some of the humans even more than you fear the ostensible monsters.  That’s not to say that the monsters aren’t scary; they are often terrifying.  But no matter how disturbing they look or how frightening their eventual appearance is, it’s the way in which we come to dread their inevitable appearance that sets this movie apart from its peers.

Time and again, Aliens refuses to completely show us the fearsome foe that everyone knows will show up.  This is typical thriller-fare, but Aliens stands out in its ability to build anticipation and fear of what is yet to come.  I mean, Aliens is really good at this: when I watched it again with my friends last Friday, I was surprised to find how tense I was.  I knew the movie, and we were forced to pause several times due to bathroom breaks or problems with our disk, but every time the movie stopped I could still feel the tension in my body.  Even though I knew what was coming and even though the building tension was interrupted multiple times, I could still feel the pressure of my anxiety increasing.  Where many other thrillers fall apart if you interrupt them, Aliens still delivers.

Part of this, I think, is because Aliens uses the maxim of “less is more” with incredible effectiveness.  I’ll mention this again later, but it will be full of spoilers.

Instead, let’s talk about immersion.  The sound design is a real marvel, with both the music and the effects offering a great deal.  The music is evocative and sparse, creating a pervasive sense of isolation and threat despite the apparent strength of the heroes.  And sometimes, in the really tense moments, it drops away into silence and lets us stew in the tension of what is happening on screen.  The sound effects are similarly impressive, from the repetitive and increasingly stressful click of the marines’ motion detectors to the dull pounding of the sentry guns as they fire offscreen, several bulkheads away.  Better yet, it’s clear that there were scenes that were specifically included for the fear and anxiety that their sound design would create.  Witness those desperate moments of trying to get people’s attention through soundproofed glass.

Another element which I only realized after re-watching the movie on Friday is that almost all of the technology in the movie has its own distinctive sound.  Or, more accurately, almost all of the technology has a a sound cue.  Whether it’s the whirr and beep of the movie’s computers or the hydraulics of the power loader, everything has a very audible presence in the world.

This goes hand in hand with the excellent job that they did in designing technology for the movie.  Despite looking very much like the future of the 80’s, complete with classic dot matrix printer paper with little holes running down the sides, everything looks very solid, real, and believable.  Maybe this is a generational thing, and people who grew up in the 2000’s won’t feel able to accept this as futuristic technology.  But I felt like the chunky, tough and utilitarian machines all have a certain appeal of their own, and they certainly pull me deep into believing the setting of the film.

Speaking of believing the film, I’m incredibly glad that Aliens wasn’t made with awkward early CGI.  Lately, every time that I’ve seen old CGI I’ve been pulled out of the film; I’m glad that my immersion in Aliens isn’t spoiled by something like that.  Furthermore, I’ve been amazed by how well the effects that they did use have aged.  Despite being almost 30 years old, the film’s visuals still feel convincing.  I think part of this, again, has to do with “less is more”: because the film doesn’t ever try to show more than just enough to increase tension, it almost never tries to create things that look unconvincing in retrospect.  H.R. Giger’s terrifying alien and environment design helps too.

Oh, and let’s not forget one of the very best parts of the movie.  Sigourney Weaver‘s Ellen Ripley is definitely my favorite movie heroine, and without doubt one of my favorite movie heroes of all time.  She is a grimly realistic survivor instead of a stupidly overcompetent action hero, and yet despite not fitting the action-hero mould she is still incredibly strong and impressive.  In many ways, Aliens feels like a love letter to Ripley’s indomitable determination despite obviously impossible odds.  And that doesn’t feel unreasonable.  There’s a very good reason why Sigourney Weaver’s performance in Aliens was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Ok, time for a few spoilers.  I hope that you’ve already seen the movie, but if you haven’t, you should avoid this section.

*SPOILERS*

Back to “less is more”; the fact is, we don’t really see very much of the aliens until the very end of the movie.  What we see instead is the mental breakdown of the commanding officer, the collapse of the squad of badass marines as they’re torn to pieces after their commander hamstrings them.  But we see those collapses through the very same fuzzy team video channels that the commander is watching; we only get hints and bits of the horrible experience that these people are going through, and that’s far more frightening than seeing everything in its entirety as it happens.

This comes up again with the sentry guns a little later in the film.  Instead of watching the guns blowing apart aliens, we watch the marines as they stare at the sentry guns’ ammunition counters, falling precipitously as they chew through their last precious rounds.  Listening to the sentry guns’ firing as the ammo counters on screen blaze downwards is chilling, and seeing the tense expressions on the marines’ faces at the same time is even better.  We see only a brief glimpse of the aliens in that whole scene, and we don’t actually need to see any more.  In fact, the most tense part of the entire scene comes when we cut back and forth between the guns, one smoking and empty while the other fires sporadically, and the ammo counters, showing the last few rounds as they dip towards zero.

*END OF SPOILERS*

So yes, I do love this movie.  If you haven’t watched it, give it a try.  If you’re paying attention, maybe you’ll see all the little pieces of the film that have inspired so much other media that has been made since.

 

p.s. It’s refreshing to find an action-thriller that doesn’t shy away from having powerful and strong female characters fulfilling the same roles as their male counterparts.  I love seeing that.