« We Missed You, Johnny! | Main | Wiki on the Way »

Lasersharking and the Honestly Extraordinary

I mentioned about a week ago that I�d been reading a post over on The 20� By 20� Room on the general subject of �lasersharking� in roleplaying games, specifically, whether a game can work and/or sell without it.

As this term can�t be found in any respectable dictionary, a little history and definition is in order. �Lasersharking� has been floating about the RPG community for the past couple of years. Its origin, as most vaguely au fait with pop culture would be able to tell you, is that wonderful scene in the movie Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery where evil genius Dr. Evil (Mike Myers) is spelling out the doom he will inflict upon super spy Austin Powers (Mike Myers) and his partner Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley) by dropping them slowly into a tank filed with Great White sharks with laser beams attached to their heads. It�s at this moment when Dr. Evil�s offsider, Number Two (Robert Wagner) informs him that they couldn�t get any Great Whites as they�re a protected species. This and Dr. Evil�s resultant tantrum are one of the most memorable comic moments of the film.

Thus came the term �lasersharking�. The term itself seems to have two general meanings, both of which have relevance for this discussion. The first is the taking of something already powerful, competent, efficient and/or deadly (the shark) and theoretically improving on it by combining it with another item of similar perceived deadliness (a laser). In gaming, said additional element is most often either SF-grade high tech or some other sort of fantastic item.

The second is the combination of two disparate genres that at first glance don�t belong together, a fairly recent phenomenon in roleplaying game worlds (e.g. Deadlands: The Weird West, Pinnacle Entertainment (now Great White Games)�s Wild West/Steampunk/Magic game, or Gear Krieg, Dream Pod 9�s World War II/Mecha game).

Both meanings have an undercurrent of improving something mundane or ordinary (if only in terms of its appeal or �coolness�) by combining it with something else either slightly out of the ordinary (a shark with a laser beam attached to its head) or drastically out of the ordinary (a Western set in space, or a police squad show featuring powerful psychic abilities).

There�s a general perception that the actual effectiveness of the original item post-improvement (a Great White shark with a laser beam attached to its head) is arguable when compared to the pre-improved item�s capabilities (a Great White shark being a highly efficient killing machine as it is). The perception is then used to draw a conclusion that �lasersharking� often exists in roleplaying game products primarily to draw potential buyers, who would otherwise pass up a game based solely around a �mundane� premise, to the product.

This perceived necessity to improve on the mundane in order to attract roleplayers is what, I think, Ron Edwards (in this post on The Forge), and Matt Snyder (in these posts on his own weblog and in The 20� By 20� Room) are reacting to, or at least questioning. Matt and Ron (especially Matt) have posited that character drama is enough to make a roleplaying game go; to paraphrase one of Matt�s points, the metaphorical skeleton in the closet can drive a game as much as the literal skeleton in the basement or the magical walking skeleton in the dungeon. Based on this idea, they�re planning to create roleplaying games with premises grounded solely in modern �real life�, with no supernatural, paranormal, advanced or exaggerated elements. They aren�t under any illusions as to the eventual success of their products, but I do get the sense that they�re honestly curious as to how they�ll go.

It�s also worth noting that Matt Wilson�s popular indie RPG, Primetime Adventures, has put this idea into action already; its rules address character conflict instead of �actual� combat. However, while the rules don�t address any given genre (they don�t need to), the rest of the text couches the rules in regular references to shows like Buffy and Farscape. Also, all but two of the ten PtA games that people have posted about on forums and websites have either been SF- or supernatural-themed. The remaining two, Moose in the City and Early Church Awakens, are relatively mundane, but the former is a kids� cartoon show and the latter is set in the days after Christ�s death; neither are truly �real life� premises.

The resultant back-and-forth from the gaming community, especially in response to Snyder�s postings, has been, by and large, politely sceptical. Personally, having rolled my eyes at some of the stretches recent roleplaying games have put forward (see again Deadlands), I found Ron and Matt�s position rather refreshing. However, on reflection, I�ve rather come around to the point of view of such respondents as Andrew Shultz, that so-called lasersharking is an integral part of the hobby for a reason. The centre of my argument is the idea that I, in my arrogance, have dubbed �the Honestly Extraordinary�.

Existing media that follow the �human interest� angle require human drama to be sustained on a weekly, or even weeknightly, basis. The problem with this is not that there aren�t skeletons in closets, but that there seems to be a new skeleton every week. A regular viewer of a five-episodes-a-week soap opera can expect at least two to three of the main characters to either be making potentially-life-changing decisions or having Dark Secrets Revealed with alarming regularity. Once the shocking consequences die down, things get boringly ordinary, so the producers and writers need to throw Something Else into the mix; another character gets a Dark Secret, or the Nice Guy suddenly becomes the Rebel Without a Cause, or the Mysterious Stranger turns up in Melodrama Street. While that my be cool in Summer Bay or Orange County, I think it�s fair to say that most of the rest of us just don�t have closets that full.

As a side note, this is the reason that half of the characters in these shows are teens or young adults; their inexperience and all that post-pubescent hormonal juggling and emotional adjustment serves as a neat character-realism explanation for the Stupid Mistakes the characters need to make so the drama (and the viewer ratings) keep ratcheting up, the ones that ensure things go from Bad to Worse.

I�ve pretty much clarified what I think is the Average Gamer�s Main Problem with Everyday Drama. We don�t want to be told that we don�t have enough Interesting Stuff going on in our life, but could if we fucked ourselves up enough or turned ourselves into utter pricks. Throwing Space Fleets, Big Mechs, Fantasy Universes or Grand Conspiracies into the mix actually makes the drama more honest, by saying, �You know what? Most people don�t have lives this interesting. So why not be honest about how extraordinary these people�s lives are? Why not take the extraordinary to its logically illogical conclusion?� That�s the Honestly Extraordinary. It doesn�t try to fudge around the issue of more-than-everyday storylines by making ordinary people create extraordinary situations in ordinary settings on a regular basis; it creates extraordinary settings and/or situations and puts ordinary people into them.

Honestly Extraordinary fiction, whether TV shows, movies, books and RPG settings, works on two levels:

  • It�s inbuilt justification for any Stupid Mistakes. Because the characters are half the time dealing with the Unknown, if not in terms of the actual opposition, then in terms of a degree of unfamiliarity between the main characters and their players/the viewers, we don�t know whether any decisions the characters make are stupid or not until later (and, most of the time, neither do the main characters).
  • It gives the characters Something To Do. From the pulp tradition and the Saturday matinees to today�s Star Wars, Star Trek and Babylon 5, writers have been filling in the gaps resultant when you take your foot off the melodrama pedal a bit with strange new worlds, new or ancient civilisations, and interesting ways to kick their asses. It�s not unreasonable to expect the mainly geek-oriented RPG audience to expect similar.

Even if it�s just Everyday Plus (normal cops/FBI agents/working stiffs tracking down Ghosts/Secret Conspiracies/Great Old Ones), an Honestly Extraordinary setting or situation feels more honest � and therefore more attractive for a hobby where you�re Only Pretending anyway � than Another Teen Pregnancy Where The Boyfriend With The Dark Secret Is Cheating On His Girlfriend (Who�s Really The Summer Bay Stalker) Whilst Dying From Cancer.

Of course, some of the other most popular shows on TV fall into the meta-genre most commonly called �lawyers, doctors and cops�. These characters are given a comparatively ordinary Something Else To Do every episode, often (for the cops and doctors, anyway) involving physical risk and (especially for the cops) action. The Law & Order TV series are great examples; they vary between Solving The Crime and Guilt Or Innocence Versus The Law with little examination on the impact such work has on the people who do it; the leads are broad-stroke characters who can be relied upon to not change or even deepen beyond their original spec much.

Maybe we need a Law & Order RPG; something more along Ron�s idea of Spione, a Cold War spy game, over Matt�s Americana game, which seems a little less clearly defined (or perhaps, less easy to sum up in three words). M. Joseph Young did a rather natty column over on RPGnet that boiled the procedure of trial and law down to its basics for the purposes of an RPG session. Maybe someone could turn that into a mini-RPG and see if it floats?

If you liked this post, please check out more RPG Notes


Law and Order: The RPG?

Already is one: http://www.mongoosepublishing.com/rpg/series.php?qsSeries=5 :)


He knows Gav...he bought it for me ages ago. I think Rob was hoping for a re-vamped version.


Hi Rob: Nice post.

The PTA series I recently completed, Dungeon Majesty, is another one of the ten games listed at Matt's site, and it was most definitely rooted in the mundane. It was, in fact, about the everyday lives of gamers, and so would seem to be even more mundane than a talking moose or ancient Rome. I've got no problem with laser sharking, but that game wasn't it.

That aside, I agree with much of what you've said here. But take a look at Neel K's post today at 20x20, if you haven't already. I think you, defending laser-sharking, and Neel, promoting the "just regular folks" game, actually make a similar point: "fictional drama without fantastic elements" and "real real life" are very different things.

Our PTA game was, as I said, about the lives of gamers, and veered ridiculously close to our own lives at many points. But what our own lives don't have is "spotlight episodes" and "arcs" and a Producer driving to highlight the issues. Fiction is fiction, drama is drama, whether it wears chainmail or a spacesuit or Abercrombie & Fitch.

But my life IS a mellodrama!
I thought I was doing OK in the beginning of the decade, so the universe conspires against me to add fire, unamployment and subsequent namad lifestyle into the mix...
Again, lately, things have settled down. I'm beginning to get a routine happening with home and work, and BAM!! Eviction notice...

When will it end?

Woohoo! Four replies overnight! This is great!

Okay, in order:

Gav: :-p

Vickie: Gav's pulling our legs, darling. :-D His link is to the Judge Dredd RPG.

Rob: Thank you very much for replying! I'll be honest, I never really got past the write-up of Dungeon Majesty's first episode: I think I got a little lost at the mention of an owlbear putting leaflets for a game under people's wind shield wipers. Maybe it was the (very clever, I have to say) POV of the network exec that threw me, but I had this feeling of "Okay, so where am I - Downtown Muncie or Downtown Muncie, Urban Arcana style?" while reading Episode 1. Was I reading that wrong?

No, I hadn't seen Neel's post already, but I did go and take a look. Very interesting reading, and I do agree with your view that we're making a rather similar point. From my point of view, though, it seems Neel is advocating a way to make a working "real life" game, whereas I think many gamers will respond to the requirement to suspend disbeleif in the everyday that results from creating "dramatic protagonists" (as opposed to "real people") with "Well, if we're suspending disbeleif anyway, why not go the whole hog?"

Sim: Eviction notice? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is going on? When did you nuts get behind on your rent?

And I get the horrible feeling it only ends when you die, luv. Trust me, Vickie and I don't want that to happen.

I feel a little foolish jumping on to so minor a point, but it's a point that directly involves me! That is, I played in Dungeon Majesty and wrote several session reports (I'll get those last couple done sometime, Rob). The Owlbear was in fact a man in a homemade owlbear costume, who wore the suit as a way of battling his rage/anger issues. Because a) the Owlbear is wise and strong, yet also a peaceful creature, and b) (this is just my own inference) it's hard to get in a fistfight when you're dressed like a car show mascot. There were in fact no supernatural elements in the game, unless you count the gold dragon that flew across the screen during the Final Episode "Slow Pull Out From Street Level to Low Orbit" Shot accompanied by Slowly Rising Rock Music. But that was just FESPOFSLLOSSRSM, nothing to write home about.

Aha. Jeff, thanks for that.

I might just leave the post as-is, so that (a) your and Rob's comments make sense and (b) everyone else can sample my utter lack of proper research before making a statement on the subject! :-D

No. we alwayspay rent 8 days on advance.
Three weeks ago we woke up and there was a development notice attatched to our fence.
We rang the agent, they came out here. They rang the owners, they told the agent that it was nothing.
We got the eviction notice last week.

Well, anyway, you make good points. I commented on this general subject over at 20x20 Room.


Excellent post! I appreciate the honest assessment, and I agree with so much of what you say here. Excellent!

Some observations:

You said: "Existing media that follow the 'human interest' angle require human drama to be sustained on a weekly, or even weeknightly, basis. The problem with this is not that there arent skeletons in closets, but that there seems to be a new skeleton every week."

So, my suggestion is to play with new characters each week. The need for a serial character seems to be a "because we've always done it that way" moment for gamers. Sure, it can be fun to return to characters. I recognize gamers like that. That's cool. But, there are other extremely enjoyable ways, too. Create a serial "show" in which there are new characters each week riffing on the same theme. Or, a different theme altogether! (I actually agree with you about how, over the long term, media like this becomes overdone. TV is especially guilty, I think. "Oh, now THEY're dating. Yawn. And the doctor has cancer now? How ironic. Yawn. Is anything else on?")

Also, you don't much mention adult fiction novels and stories. That's a large part of where I'm drawing inspiration from. Looking over on my shelf, I recognize the following: Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker, The Body Artist by Don DeLillo, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, Cold Snap (shorstories) by Thom Jones, Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Death of Ivan Illych by Leo Tolstoy, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck ... etc etc etc

I see rich conflict among "regular folks" in these works. While some of those books contain some post-modern strangeness, they remain completly "normal folks" stories with very few "extraordinary situations." Indeed, many situations in those books are extremely "ordinary" (Catcher in the Rye comes to mind, as does Death of Ivan Illych and others).

That's the kind of "genre" I'm interested in capturing, and it's definitely the kind of conflict and resulting themes I want to see a game produce.

Thanks for posting on this!

P.S. See also my replay to Neel's post on the 20' by 20' room. I'm not, nor have I ever been, talking about 'Real real life." I'm talking about what Neel is: a "just regular folks" game, with ordinary and sometimes extraordinary situations as crucibles.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)