A couple of years ago, then Pixar storyboard artist Emily Coats tweeted pieces of advice on making stories that she had picked up from working with Pixar, which were later compiled in several places on the internet, such as this io9 post. Later, Dino Ignacio created image macros of the individual rules which I am using in these posts.
Rule #20: “Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?”
It’s one thing to take something you like and figure out how to emulate it, it’s another thing to keep your eyes open during a less than stellar experience and determine how it could have been done better. If you’re lucky enough to be playing in a game someone else is running, pay attention. Your GM may be one of the best, but they will still make mistakes, or deliver bad rulings, or have an adventure go absolutely wrong; (privately) think about what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what you could have done differently in their place. I consider this a crucial habit for an aspiring GM to develop, as most RPG books do a terrible job of teaching someone how to GM and rely on an ad hoc mentor system instead. The problem with mentors is that if you aren’t careful, their bad habits and blind spots will be passed on to you. Worse, you might start thinking that those bad habits are actually good habits, as opposed to clunky aspects of that particular GM’s personal style. Most GM’s you encounter are, to a greater or less degree, self-taught, due to there not being enough existing GM’s to go around, and as the Iron Bull says about self-taught warriors, “Even the good ones have something awkward in their style. Something that clunks.”
All that being said, if you don’t have a game going, you’re going to have to take your inspiration from somewhere else. For that reason, and because I’ve already made too many veiled references to other people’s games in this series, I’m going to show how I would apply this rule by drawing inspiration from television. Namely, from the only first season episode of Voyager I actively disliked. That’s right, I’m revisiting “Faces” for all of you, so I’d appreciate it if you showed some gratitude.
The basic building blocks of “Faces” are: 1) An antagonist performing unethical experiments for the sake of a projected greater good, 2) A multiethnic character whose internalized cultural conflict becomes physically manifested, and 3) A rescue operation that helps said character escape from the clutches of the antagonist. Notice that when you strip these elements down to their basic form they can find a home in a variety of genres. The antagonist, for example, could be a wizard conducting magical experiments in a fantasy game, or a bioneural hacker creating personality forks from an unwilling subject in a transhuman setting. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to assume you’re running a sci-fi exploration game in the vein of Star Trek where it’s necessary to make assumptions, but keep in mind that inspiration can easily cross genres.
Let’s start with the antagonist, since that aspect is entirely within your purview as the GM. The first thing you can do is jettison the whole sexual-attraction-to-test-subject thing out the airlock and blast it with a photon torpedo. The scientist in “Faces” has an interesting ethical dilemma on his hands, but that gets entirely overshadowed by how incredibly creepy and predatory he is. He’s entirely too distracted by having a sexy woman unwillingly restrained, in pain, and at his mercy, to the point where the viewer wonders if that’s really what this is all about. And then he kills someone and wears their face. Now, the villain who’s using high-minded ideals to paper over their personal predilections can be an interesting one, particularly if you want to make a point about how people pushed to the fringes of their communities (as multiethnic individuals often are) are more vulnerable to predators. If you want your antagonist to garner some sympathy and get the players to appreciate where they’re coming from and the dilemma on their hands, however, it generally helps if they don’t come off as a serial killer. In fact, a little bit of empathy from them can go a long way. If the antagonist makes even some small gestures towards the comfort of their subject or easing their pain, it can make the players a lot more willing to consider their perspective. Alternately, you could have the antagonist maintain an unfailingly cold and clinical attitude if you want to invite the players to question whether they are being logical or operating under a severely skewed thought process.
Now, when it comes to the multiethnic character who is experimented upon, you might think that one of your players’ characters would fit in the spot. Don’t do this lightly. This not only involves putting a character at risk of being killed or permanently altered, but also requires that that character’s agency be severely compromised, which makes it doubly important that you talk to the player first and give them agency over whether or not this even happens. If they’ve been playing up similar themes in how they roleplay their character, they might be on board, or they might be unwilling to risk having an important aspect of their character stripped away (as it almost is for B’Ellana). Even if they’re on board with the concept, they might have a very different idea about how it would play out. Remember, the player is the absolute expert on their own character’s internal conflicts, and you need to respect that. You also need to figure out the logistics; is the player up for the challenge of roleplaying two iterations of the same character simultaneously, or are you going to need to roleplay one of them? If so, what do you need to know to portray that character properly? A whole lot of communication needs to happen before you can move forward with this idea.
Alternately, the multiethnic character might be an NPC under your control. In this case, the character should be well established and established to be caught between cultures in some way. If the players don’t know who the NPC is prior to the beginning of the adventure, it’s going to be hard to get them to really care without leaning on tired damsel tropes, and they’re going to have no context with which to understand the externalized conflict playing out. And if you haven’t established an internal cultural conflict with the NPC, it’s going to look like you just picked them out for a Very Special Episode. This is not a plot you can just drop into the middle of a campaign, at least, not without relying on stereotypes. Next, you need to think about how you’re going to manifest the character’s internal conflict and what message that metaphor is sending. The way it’s done in “Faces” ends up implying that personality traits are part of one’s racial heritage and I would hope you have something better to say in this, the fifteenth year of the Twenty-First Century in the Common Era. Personally, I’d have both “halves” maintain the same personalities as usual and explore how those traits are interpreted differently based on outward appearance. Does the warrior race half seem more aggressive than the human half despite the fact that they are advocating similar courses of action merely because that’s what’s expected? Would either one fit better into their apparent culture due to fitting in better visually, or would they still find themselves marginalized for the aspects of their personality that don’t conform (Consider Worf, who’s Klingon and strongly values that culture but still finds himself in conflict with other Klingons due to his Starfleet principles and training)? You might have different ideas about where to go with this plot, but the important thing is that you think carefully about what you’re doing so you don’t end up sending a message you didn’t intend. Also, it should go without saying that if you’re going to do a plot like this, you should have other multiethnic characters in your story whose experience is different from this character’s experience so that they don’t become emblematic of What It Means To Be Multiethnic.
Finally, we come to the rescue, which could also just be an escape. Depending on how you set up the plot, the other players could be the cavalry coming in to save the day, or they could also be prisoners helping execute a jailbreak. If your game and group supports it, you could even split the party and have some of them on the inside and some on the outside, which allows you to show what is going on with the experiments rather than having them be related second-hand. Regardless, the most important thing is that you restore agency to the multiethnic character after stripping it away to make them vulnerable. Whether that character is a PC or an NPC, they should have the opportunity to participate in securing their own freedom. This is one area where “Faces” actually does a good job: The two B’Ellanas are allowed to take concrete steps towards regaining control of their surroundings that helps the rescue operation succeed. Don’t keep your characters chained to a table until the cavalry defeats all the enemies and cuts them loose.
At some point, you’re also going to have to consider what the final outcome of the experiment is. Does the experimenter get the result they were looking for? More importantly, what happens to the character who was experimented on? “Faces” ultimately forces a return to the status quo, but you don’t necessarily have to go that route. If one of the PC’s was the one being experimented on, potential outcomes should have been part of the discussion you had with them beforehand. You can keep open the possibility that circumstances might intervene and, say, one of the “halves” gets killed by player carelessness during the escape, but ideally you should preserve the player’s agency in this matter and let them choose whether their character gets restored or remains separated. You don’t have to make it easy on them; restoring their previous state might require an adventure of its own to accomplish, and if they elect to remain separate, they might get into an argument with themselves over who gets to try to pick up the pieces of their previous life or whether that’s even an option. On the one hand, this is an opportunity to have one conflict flow naturally into another and have far-reaching implications. On the other hand, you might need to find some kind of resolution quickly so that one player’s character(s) doesn’t end up dominating the game. On the gripping hand, even a resolution that provides immediate closure can leave the door open for the player to play with the fallout of this event well into the future.
Hopefully this was a useful exercise for you, the reader. Even bad media can have interesting ideas that could be useful to them if you modify them. If nothing else, this can mean that the next time you watch a bad episode/movie/whatever, instead of thinking “Well, there’s time I’ll never get back,” you can think “Well, at least I can get some ideas out of this.” And that’s really what we’re all about here: Lifehacks for the nihilist in us all.