Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Meta-Setting of Dallas

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Dallas was (and – given its current incarnation – still is) about the life and times of a powerful, dysfunctional Texas family.  Not surprisingly, the SPI role-playing game based on Dallas follows suit; however, the game's complete title is Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game.  Beyond the trials and tribulations of the Ewing clan, the game treats its subject as television.  As we saw in last week's post, the Game Master equivalent is called 'The Director' and each session/adventure is an 'Episode.'  This is what I mean by meta-setting; between the participants and the 'game world' in which their characters interact, there is a distinct, fictive layer with its own concepts and conceits.

Players are not merely playing characters – they are playing characters within the context of a television show.  Perhaps the designer, Jim Dunnigan, felt that novice players would find it easier to pretend given the 'frame' of television; allowing the players to be two steps removed from the devious activities of the characters.  Of course, many games allow players to be devious, but in Dallas, 'deviousness' could take the form of coercion or seduction – behaviors the general public would not normally associate with a game.  Per the rules, “An interesting Episode, by its nature, forces characters to get what they can from other characters – either in the spirit of cooperation or in conflict.”  With two 'levels' of make believe, players might be more willing to employ tactics worthy of J.R.

When an Episode is played, the Director uses a Script to control the flow of the game.  There are three Scripts provided with the game.  Additionally, there is a Scriptwriter's Guide that provides advice on creating original Scripts.  Interestingly (at least to me), it is not assumed that the Director is the same person as the Scriptwriter.  An Episode consists of several Scenes; each of the provided Scripts has five Scenes, but “The Director may add a Scene or two at the end of the game if the play so far would seem to benefit from it.”  A 'Director Phase' occurs at the start of each Scene.  During this Phase, the Director introduces plot devices (which the game defines as “information, items, and events”) and minor characters.  The rules emphasize that “the Script is merely a guideline.  It is up to the Director to add his/her imagination to keep the game fresh and interesting...”  Although a Script suggests which Scene to introduce a given plot device, the Director should introduce it when it “will have its greatest impact.”  This is the extent of the television 'aspect' of Dallas; the necessary simplicity of the rules (it's right there on the cover – “easy rules”) precludes additional game mechanics.

Your humble host is aware of only one other role-playing game where the setting is treated within the context of television:  Cartoon Action Hour by Cynthia Celeste Miller and Eddy Webb.  In Dallas, there is no provision for character development from Episode to Episode; there is no experience mechanic, so to speak.  Besides a traditional treatment of experience, Cartoon Action Hour has an optional rule wherein a major character is forced to leave the series if his popularity declines sufficiently.  'Popularity' is represented by 'Cool Factor,' but could just as easily be called 'Viewer Interest.'  Each Episode, a 'Cool Factor' roll is made for each player character, but the rule could easily apply to non-player characters.  A low roll decreases the character's Cool Factor while a high roll increases it.  The roll is modified by 'Good Points' or 'Bad Points.'  A character receives Good Points when he “does something particularly clever, cunning, or true to his personality” and receives Bad Points when he “does something particularly bland or untrue to his personality.”  Something similar could be devised for a Dallas 'campaign' or 'season' (like that's ever going to happen).  With such a rule in place, I think that players should switch characters and play a different character each Episode.  In this way, a character's fate is not tied to the ability of one player.

Perhaps Dallas could use a “shower scene” rule where the majority of players can decide to invalidate a degree of continuity.  Of course, there would need to be some sort of 'cost' involved so as to discourage abuse.

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