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Weird, Wild Fun

4/5

This was a delightfully unconventional adventure, written with a flair for the dramatic and a (mostly) light tone. My players were a bit bemused at first, but soon they came to embrace the setting's rules and Wonderlandian logic, and ended up having a grand time.

I chose to use the Harrow Deck in a different way than the module describes, so I can't speak to its use in the adventure. I changed it because I felt the PCs needed more help navigating through the Harrowing (that is, getting from place to place) than they did resolving the encounters themselves. However, my changes didn't work out that well, so I won't describe them here; instead, I'll recommend that GMs use the NPCs to lead or direct the PCs through the plane's geography -- not necessarily in a linear way, but more in ways that reflect the Storykin's ongoing stories. If the PCs get a sense that there are many stories going on all around them, they will start to eavesdrop and follow characters to the places they need to be.

Speaking of stories: although I love the fact that these NPCs all behave according to certain narrative scripts, I would have liked more written information about the stories themselves. My players quickly realized they could resolve most encounters without resorting to combat, usually because the NPCs were "pre-programmed" with specific needs. So they got the party's bard to start making Knowledge checks about Sonnorae's legendary tales...which led to a LOT of awkwardly improvised details from a frantic GM!

Of course, other parties may choose to hack and slash their way through the Storykin (and I LOVE the fact that both options are consistently detailed). But they would be losing out on a rare opportunity to explore a self-contained, fully-realized fantasy world -- the sort that players will remember and reminisce about long after their characters have been put out to pasture.


Pizza, no chocolate.

3/5

Finding this book was like stumbling across a chocolate pizza joint. It promises to combine two of my favourite topics -- Shakespeare and role-playing games -- as if they were made to go together. Alas, poor Yorick; such a harmonious fusion was too good to be true.

Robin Laws's slim book conducts a blitzkrieg narrative analysis of three "classic" stories -- Hamlet, Dr. No, and Casablanca. The purpose of these detailed studies is to demonstrate Laws's unique system of classifying "beats" and tracking up-and-down movements on a "hope/fear" graph. In theory, by seeing how these three stories operate, gamemasters should then be able to improve the narrative flow of their game sessions.

The narrative analyses themselves are fascinating -- at least, as a writer, I found them so. Laws's system isn't airtight, but it does help to see the storytelling flow in a different way than the standard (and much-abused) Freytag Narrative Arc. Some editing flaws create problems (his graphs don't always match his explanations, and he inexplicably omits one scene of Hamlet in Act Three), but if this were an academic thesis on narrative flow and audience reception, Laws would earn at least a couple of letters after his name. He also manages to keep things entertaining, especially when poking fun of the Freudian undertones (overtones?) of the Bond film.

Sadly, when it comes time to demonstrate how to apply all of these tricks, turns, and techniques to RPGs, Laws drops the ball. Of the book's 192 pages, a paltry 5 pages are devoted to role-playing narrative strategies. Granted, there are a few sidebars elsewhere in the book, and sometimes his narrative analysis refers to RPGs, but mostly just to remind us how unlike role-playing his case studies are. And let's face it, he's right; as much as I love Shakespeare and Hamlet, I'd never dream of trying to run a group of D&D players through it (Claudius would be dead in under ten minutes).

As cogent as Laws's narrative analyses are, his role-playing advice is nigh impenetrable. He relies on his pre-established terminology, but hardly provides any gaming examples -- or, when he does, he sticks to vagueness like this:

"If you spot a comparatively large number of the non-central gratification, bringdown, and commentary beats on your preliminary breakdown, cut them or find ways to fold them into your procedural or dramatic storylines. For example, your adventure notes may consist of reams of detail on a cool place, culture, or historical event. Matching these elements up with beat types helps you to turn them from passive narration into active events the players can shape through their decisions and die rolls."

I didn't really need to be told that players dislike info dumps, and I wish that Laws's solution made sense in practical terms, or that he could provide a few examples that came from role-playing.

And that, I think, is where Hamlet's Hit Points suffers its critical fumble: role-playing is an interactive, improvised, imagination-driven medium, which makes it ALMOST NOTHING like theatre or film. If this book had simply put forth a new approach to narrative analysis -- if it had been pure pizza, hold the chocolate -- it might not have found its niche market, but it would have been a much more satisfying read.


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