Serious Stories and Emotional Taxes

It takes a lot for me to drop a story early. I’ve struggled enough with pacing and storytelling to know how important a good beginning, middle, and end are to any narrative, and I feel like I can’t effectively judge a story unless I see how it wraps up. It’s why I tend not to lose interest in something midway through; if the beginning is enough to grab me, I’ll probably stick with it until the end. Depending on the media, this can be either the sign of a dedicated fan and critic or a form of Stockholm Syndrome combined with a sunk-cost fallacy, and your opinion on that may differ by how much you like the story in question. Regardless, unless something truly heinous occurs I’m probably going to follow a work for the long haul.

Which is why I’m a bit unsettled that within a month I’ve dropped two television shows from my viewing habits while they’re still airing. For similar but different reasons, I’ve opted to stop watching a series midway through its second season and I’ve left another show during its mid-season break. There are a couple of lessons to take away from the latter, but today I want to talk about the former.

Blindspot is a show about a woman, who wakes up naked in central park with total amnesia and a body covered in tattoos, and the FBI team who tries to figure out the first part of this sentence. The tattoos are coded messages about current or future crimes, usually involving government corruption or malfeasance. Our heroes puzzle out the meanings of the tattoos off-camera so they can spend most of the episode fighting bad guys, dealing with interpersonal drama, and trying to bring down the organization who gave them all their leads and intel. Also Jaimie Alexander is the main character, which is important because I feel like “watch Sif fight people while looking vaguely panicked and confused” was a huge selling point when the show started.

I was expecting something like a crime-based mystery show, where we’d spend more time working through the tattoos and how they linked with each other. Instead it’s a lot more about action, and I’m sort of fine with that. The show linked its individual escapades with a myth arc about the main character’s ontological mystery, but they didn’t continually answer questions with more questions. It felt like we were making progress, and the characters’ goals and language changed to reflect that. I didn’t know where the story was going to end but I got the impression there was an end in mind and we would reach it one day. I wanted to see what happened.

But as the show went on, I found it wore on me. Each episode focused on the ways things are broken, but in a “we’ll never solve things” way instead of a “we can make the world a better place” way. The bad guys regularly walked several steps ahead of the heroes, except when they were tripped by even worse bad guys. Likable characters died so other characters could suffer. Allies lied to and betrayed each other constantly. Every small step toward happiness was met with two frustrating steps toward malaise. Even the set design and wardrobe enhanced the hopelessness. Nobody was happy, they were clearly never going to be happy, and I wasn’t happy watching them be unhappy. So I left.

I don’t want to give the impression that I can’t stand any form of suffering (in fact, my players would say exactly the opposite). I know what drama is, and I know there have to be failures and setbacks to make success meaningful. But I don’t understand media whose goal is to portray the suffering of characters and impart that suffering on viewers. I need a light at the end of the tunnel to keep me walking, and grimdark media either intentionally lacks that or mitigates it to the point of irrelevancy. I use my recreation time to recreate, and anything that relentlessly drains me isn’t good leisure.

This is kind of the point behind Law 0: the point of the game is to have fun. Winning a battle by the skin of your teeth through luck, clever tactics, or a good build is fun. Winning every battle by the skin of your teeth, remaining constantly on edge because you don’t know when something’s going to come along and broadside you, never taking a breath because it’s a sign of weakness, that’s just bad pacing. It’s also not fun when the players outpace you from beginning to end, or when the villains ignore your efforts to subvert them, or when you meander without direction from set piece to set piece. From a DM’s perspective, fun is actually a lot of work.

It’s a problem I’ve felt acutely in my current campaign. Every encounter seems to follow a similar formula: the players are incredibly, almost suspiciously powerful and walk all over their opponents, but if they in any way fail to ace the encounter the results will be narratively catastrophic. I expect if resent this from combat, where the stakes and power level are high, but it seems this also applies to every other conversation the players have, where any given skill check could get them killed. In between those encounters we have long stretches of planning and investigation with an unhealthy dose of “what do we do now?”. I tried to run a high-level campaign with an overarching story while giving the players freedom to make choices, and instead I find myself unable to prepare, guessing vaguely at what an appropriate challenge will be and scrambling to put something to further the plot everywhere in the universe because there is absolutely no reason for anybody to go to the Elemental Plane of Smoke ever. Each session is stressful in a way a hobby shouldn’t be, and it exerts an unsustainable emotional tax.

But unlike a television show, I can fix the direction of a campaign. I’ve already started by giving my players a slightly more insistent direction so we spend less time wondering where to go and more time going there. They get to make decisions with consequences beyond which type of random encounter they might get, and I get to spend less time coming up with filler, so everybody wins. I’m also trying to put some more light-hearted segments into the story so we’re not always in dour emergency situations. There’s a reason we’re calling the next dungeon “the Untasty Place”, and why nobody tried to accost the players during their last shopping trip on Abyss. I’m still working on how I want to deal with combat balance, but it’s a start.

I’m starting to figure out that the more light-hearted and tightly-paced my campaigns are, the more fun I have with them, which is a bit bothersome. I do want to run serious stories where the players can dictate the action, but it’s not working as well as I’d hoped. It might just be that I need to control their length. I’m able to handle a short weighty campaign better than a long weighty one, the same way a movie doesn’t wear me down as much as Blindspot has, and I’ve found players are more tolerant of directed play in smaller stories. It does mean campaign scope will be smaller, but I think we might appreciate a campaign that determines the fate of only a few thousand people instead of a few countries.

My main goal is to not burn out and end the campaign before we’re done with it. I’ve had the good fortune to only prematurely end two campaigns in my career, both due to extenuating circumstances, and I want to keep that record going. But my secondary goal is to recognize when the ship is sinking and know whether to correct course or man the lifeboats. I don’t want to get into a state where I or the players are coasting along, suffering but resigned to the state of things. Like a TV show, I need to be able to recognize when something deserves my attention to the end and when it doesn’t.

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