Thursday, January 17, 2019

Cowboy Bebop and the Art of Controlling a Session

I like anime. Bebop is one of the best. And when rewatching it last month, I realized that I had been using tools from it. So here's a post about those tools.

1. Bounty of the Week

  • The key to controlling a session is to know your enemy
  • In Bebop, every episode (session) revolves around a bounty that the gang is chasing. 
  • Find your bounty. It can be a reoccurring villain or a Monster of the Week scenario. 
  • This is tied into your Theme. In the war example from the Pokemon post, the enemy is the opposing force.

2. Structure

  • To goal of knowing your enemy is to have a structure. 
  • Bebop's structure is simple: 1. there's a new bounty, 2. the gang goes after the bounty, 3. the gang doesn't get rich.
  • This is most feasible to plot in an episodic game, where every session can have an individual story
  • But **Bebop's structure comes from the Villains**. It comes from the Theme that there will always be another bounty to catch, they will always mess up, and they will always escalate. 

3. Villains

  • So to create your Structure, even in a serial campaign, you must only know the steps your enemy will take to succeed their goal
  • Continuing the war example: the enemy will always try to win the war. Doing this can be done in many ways, to create some variance, but we can make a list of three steps that all of the opposing forces see the world through: There's a new target, we send troops to deal with the target, we win the war. 
  • Ever need to know what the enemy force is trying to do? Wherever the PCs are is a new target. The opposing forces will send troops to handle this new target, either by destroying it, capturing it, planting a spy, etc. In the hopes that they'll win the war.

4. Pacing

  • Bebop tells a fulfilling and impactful episode in 22 minutes. You have 3 hours (or more) to be a part of something that is fun. Doesn't even need to be impactful. Just fun for the table.
  • If you watch Bebop, you'll see that, like in D&D, the gang meanders, wanders, gets distracted A LOT. They focus on the wrong things, follow the wrong leads, wind up at "dead ends" of the Bounty Hunt. 
  • The Villains always stay on track though. And this creates pace.
  • If your session feels like its lagging if it feels like your party is losing their place, if there is a big lull and nothing is happening and you feel the game slipping away...your villain is trying to accomplish their goal.
  • YOU can act in the face of party inaction. You, in the guise of the world, can act.

4b. Types of Action

  • The villain does something devastating nearby
  • The villain attacks the party
  • The villain takes hostages
  • The villain escalates the situation
  • The villain is spotted making an escape
  • The villain slips up and reveals their position

5. Communication

  • Cowboy Bebop communicates with its cast. The world, I mean, communicates with the gang to push the show along. Most episodes are started with a TV program giving the gang their new bounty. And when this doesn't happen, either they stumble onto a bounty wherever they happen to be, or the character's backstories come back to haunt them.
  • As a DM, I find a lot of joy in worldbuilding that communicates with the players
  • Bounty boards are a big example of this in a standard fantasy world. Open a session with the bounty board and you're off to the races
  • But you have the freedom to communicate in other ways. Quest giving NPCs that have a personality and depth can be a great way to open a session, which creates pacing but also allows for RP.

5b. Backstories

  • Spike has a personal villain that haunts him. And because of this past life, he has a lot of contacts. I'd say 1/4th of episodes have something to do with Spike's past, or someone from the Gang's past. 
  •  Matthew Mercer, DM for Critical Role, almost exclusively communicates to the party through their backstories. Their gods, patrons, past friends, enemies, etc. 
  • When your PCs hand you a backstory, it is a gift of resources that all allow you to communicate directly to your party through the game

As always, check out my book. It's in the right hand corner. This is my continued attempt to get my reddit posts onto the blog without just spamming everything all at once.

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