Finally got caught up on Sherlock. I find that I enjoy reading people’s comments about the shows I watch, as I miss movie review programs and the like.
While I don’t think the show is as smart … maybe that’s not the word … as polished as it was in season 1, there’s a kind of complaint for this show I find common and notable. People seem to complain more recently about how the mysteries, themselves, are neither as good nor as important.
I had an epiphany some years ago about ACD’s original stories. I’ve read most of them more than twice, especially not the longer ones. I’ve also read miscellaneous efforts by other authors. My epiphany was that Sherlock Holmes isn’t about good mysteries. In terms of “mystery quality”, the mysteries sometimes suck and a lot are just one-trick ponies. The reader doesn’t get key information that would allow the reader to figure things out for themselves. Trust me on this, it’s not always the case, but it’s often the case that Holmes does stuff to figure things out that we only hear about at the end of the story, when he’s explaining everything.
So, if the mysteries aren’t actually good mysteries, what does make the stories so compelling?
Characters. Situations. Scenes.
The hot babes Watson is constantly enamored with who consult with Holmes may not be especially notable, but so many of the characters who visit 221 or that the dynamic duo quickly come across in their investigations are odd, bizarre, distinct. Some are just distinct for being “in every way a respectable Englishman”, but Holmes’ world is a world of weird characters. Mrs. Hudson may be largely nonexistent and the Scotland Yard detectives tend to be hard to keep straight because they are mostly useless, but Mycroft is a character of a character, and so on.
The mysteries may not be all that mysterious, but the situations disguise that. ACD’s stories were more pseudo-weird tales, where something seems insane because the baddies went way out of their way to make their crimes difficult, I mean, colorful.
While most mysteries are all about the revealing explanation scene, just as Perry Mason is all about the revealing outburst in the middle of court, there are other scenes that the pair find themselves in that register with the reader. The “I can tell everything about someone” scenes at the beginning of many of the stories is key to the popularity of the series and the natures of the protagonists.
The takeaway from realizing that Sherlock Holmes is not so much about solving mysteries but about the character of Holmes and the characters around him (including the everyman who describes their adventures) is that RPG play is often not about what it’s sold as. For instance, the idea that playing a character and getting into character and seeing character development isn’t actually that common in my experience. On the other hand, neither are the adventures seemingly at the heart of play. Many an adventure (in home play) may come down to killing some mooks and killing some big bad and getting some sort of reward or making a bunch of rolls to do one thing well, e.g. climbing, stealth, diplomacy. Nor is it being immersed in a world, not even when the world is supposed to be the reason for the game – see Star Wars, et al.
The most engaging element of RPG play, from my experience, is that of character sheet values. “But, that’s your powergamer group, that’s not us.” Maybe it isn’t you, but it’s not my group either. It’s every single one of my groups, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-50 people I’ve played RPGs with regularly at one point or another.
I’m not saying that character mechanics are the end all and be all of my play. I just find it revealing and kind of fascinating how often someone who doesn’t seem to think he or she is a mechanics person mention something about a character’s numbers. Then, it’s also the lack of mentioning things about the world, the NPCs, the inner thoughts or explicit goals of their characters, or the “why” we mow down a bunch of mooks that reinforces the idea that character mechanics are the primary interest of the player.
I’m not outside of such considerations. I talk about my characters’ abilities all of the time. But, when it comes to a comparison of what my characters achieve in game versus what they could achieve due to attribute X and skill Y, I’m far more enthused by the former.
“But, why can’t other people be like you? Why can’t they talk the lingua game-a of stats but actually care about the role or the world or whatever artsy pretentious nonsense that you are trying to push on us?”
It’s possible. But, again, it’s not just what people choose to speak about but also what they ignore in campaigns that makes me think that role-playing is nowhere near as much of a thing as roll-playing. I’m not into elaborate backstories for my new characters. I’ve spent far too much time thinking about things that never arise in play or even in my off stage stories. The fleshing out of who someone is and where they came from and what they care about is all far better done through the course of playing that character. And, I’m not fond of being put on the spot to make something up that may or may not make sense for the character once I actually get to play the character.
But, unlike others, I do develop those areas when it makes sense in the campaign to do so. Obviously, a tactical wargame style campaign doesn’t incentivize character development. I will give my players opportunities to develop NPCs that could be relevant to their characters. I can’t recall, off the top of my head, someone taking up those opportunities and running with it. On the other hand, I’ve volunteered to create NPCs for campaigns, NPCs my characters may never interact with.
I’m not a good role-player, in that I don’t care as much about character as I care about plot or as much as I care about tossing in some humor into play, either of which leads me to not spend much effort to get “into” character. On the other hand, having a character that is a feature of a world (campaign) is a lot more interesting to me than having a collection of numbers that lives within the context of other numbers.
“What did you achieve?”
I achieved 10ke5 on my attack roll and 7km3 on my damage roll. Shrug.
I achieved seducing the Emperor’s daughter. “Who hasn’t?” Um, anyone else in the party.
I achieved the killing of Oni no Acid. “Well, we fought the Oni Lord …”
I caused the city to riot to help our efforts to kill the God of Iron and Steel, which led to the collapse of the worship of the old gods in this here parts.
I saved the world by rolling 72 on my Persuasion check. “If you take the Cheat-Code Path from Broken Book III: The Breakening, you could totally do that at level -4, 81% of the time, and that’s not counting the bonuses you can get for being in deep fog.”
I found my wife, right before her end.
Another thing that’s interesting about how I play RPGs in contrast to (some) others is that I’m far more interested in NPCs … “Stop. Just stop. Tired of you bringing this up.” … and far less interested in other PCs. It’s not that I don’t care at all. It’s that what other PCs do is less important than what NPCs do because the latter is the window into the world where the former is just players like me doing stuff like I do. I bring this up because I’m not bothered by other players having other priorities in terms of the experience they get. If they want to tune their character sheets or deep dive into the pathos of their existence or keep a running total of kills/loot quantities, sure, whatever floats your boat.
What breakdown may occur is when the GM and the player aren’t on the same page … “Stop, Just stop. Didn’t you talk about this like five times before in this blog?” … about what is rewarding to the player. If the GM thinks the player wants to power up and the player wants to have meaningful relationships with Catholic, Japanese, angel/vampire/monster-hunter schoolgirls, or vice versa, an opportunity for a more fulfilling experience is lost.
To drag this back to the lead-in, just as someone reading (or watching?) Sherlock Holmes for the intelligent mysteries is likely to have a less than fulfilling experience. The longer I’ve played, the clearer it has become to me what I’m looking for out of RPG play, no matter how hard it becomes to express my interests, at times. What hasn’t become clearer to me is what others truly care about and not what they comment about.