Elizabeth Bear has talked on her journal about stunt writing: “Which is to say, playing a narrative trick that does more than serve as a narrative trick, something that really justifies its existence.” (She specifies later that, to count as a stunt, it has to be difficult, too.) And it occurred to me last night that what I’ve been doing for the last nine months probably qualifies as the game equivalent, stunt GMing.
For those only now tuning in, we’re talking about a weekly, tabletop Changeling game that is structured like (and named for) the movie Memento. After an initial few sessions in 2006, we began flashing back to the characters’ previous lives in 1916, 1828, and so on, all the way back to the mid-fourteenth century. So while researching previous centuries (a new, or should I say old, one every month), I was also having to handle all the tricks of narrative and game backward: exposition in reverse, foreshadowing that was actually back-shadowing, use of backstory that was actually fore-story, character development that went in direct opposition to in-story chronological order. While the players were figuring out how to play nine different versions of the same people, I was coming up with nine guys to help them out, all members of the same family and with some similarities, but trying to make them individuals, too. And juggling the ever-changing question of how much they remembered of the past, balancing that against what it would be useful for them to know, and setting everything up so that they would arrive back in 2006 with the last pieces having only just fallen into place, half an hour and 650 years ago.
Having just returned to 2006 during last night’s session, I officially render my personal verdict, which is that the narrative trick of this game’s structure did, indeed, justify its existence. Probably one of the best comments I got was Oddsboy’s, who, upon me saying they were back in 2006, said, “Wow, I’m so not prepared for this.” Which his character shouldn’t be, having just remembered 650 years of his own past. Forgetting momentarily who the hell you are right now is an appropriate reaction. I think the mental and emotional effect of moving through it all backwards worked out, in a situation where they-the-characters knew what they were doing when they started but forgot over the centuries, so they-the-players had no idea what they were doing initially but found out as they went back, and in between knowing nothing and knowing everything both a lot of time and none at all elapsed. I’m pleased it worked, but I’m more pleased that I think I made the right choice, running it that way, instead of going through things in chronological order. It’s nice to know I wasn’t just being an artsy wank; I did, in fact, have good reasons for siccing on myself (and my players) nine months of heavy-duty mental work.
(That’s my verdict. Said players can form their own.)
But I’ve got to say, I’m glad to be back in the present. From here on out (i.e. another month and a half or so), no more stunt GMing. I’m running a normal game, that will go in a linear fashion from where we are now to where we’re going to end, rather than dancing around in loopy little time circles. Causes first, consequences second, all very straightforward, and man, does that sound nice.