Watchmen + Structure + Games =?

I’ve been obsessing over HBO’s Watchmen lately, and it has me thinking about whether or not there’s any way to capture the spirit of the show/book’s storytelling in the RPG space.

I’m thinking less about the story’s specific themes (deconstructing superheroes, who wields power and how?, etc.) and more about the style of storytelling. The way both the book and the show utilize recurring motifs and symbols, information density, rewarding worldbuilding, and clever/intentional structure. It gets my brain whirring in all sorts of interesting ways. And I’m wondering if it’s possible to capture that energy in a ttrpg.

My instinct is: No. Game stories are almost by definition looser than something like Watchmen, and games’ strengths are almost entirely antithetical to this kind of storytelling.

But… can it be done? If so, how would you handle it? Are there games that already exist that scratch this itch for you?

And I guess one more question: If Watchmen the comic was designed specifically to be a COMIC and utilize that medium’s strengths while exploring its possibilities, and Watchmen the show is doing the same for TV… what would be the game version?

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@kierongillen’s DIE RPG leaps to mind as a game where the medium of play is a sustantial element of the plot (the same way the Watchmen comic includes diagetic comics and the HBO series shows diagetic superhero shows).

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(Disclaimer: I haven’t watched Watchmen yet, but plan to.)

Your question made me think that many games mechanically reward players when they play their characters toward certain traits. What if the campaign itself had “traits” that the group wanted to explore. You might call these themes – things like “power” or “betrayal” or “self-awareness” or “true love”. Players are rewarded when they play to a theme. I could see a campaign revolving around a single statement (“Who watches the watchmen?”) and the group rewarding individuals who use their character to explore it.

The other half-thought I had in response to your questions was that to me TTRPGs’ main strength – as a medium – is collaborative narrative. Part of the framework used in TTRPGs is the prompt, like “What do you do?” or a leading question. Campaign Themes can be universal prompts.

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It may be a little off from what you’re talking about, but one thing I’ve done is try to keep an eye out for images and motifs which occur in early sessions. Rain, artificial intelligence, fathers, gatherings for meals, and so on. I try to make note of those-- in my head or sometimes I’ll write them down. Then I try to seed them back into my descriptions, set ups, and moves later on. I try not to force the meaning, but instead work to actively bring them back so that their meaning becomes emergent through play. One specific trick I borrow from The Veil is to create color associations early on.

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I am also enjoying this new show. It’s very well produced and put together; there’s a lot to watch and follow and think about.

In my experience, there’s nothing in the show that couldn’t be done in an RPG. You need a top-notch team, so to speak, to achieve a high level of quality, but it’s definitely possible. With clever players and a collaborative framework, I’ve seen similar things happen at the table.

But maybe you’re seeing something I’m not, or talking about something different. Perhaps you want to zoom in on a particular moment or detail or theme, and we can talk about how to produce that at the table?

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Structurally, I would want to play Watchmen in Microscope (maybe interspersing a campaign with sessions of Follow). Something where there is an explicit shared pallete and resolution is based only on a shared sense of tone and narrative stakes (rather than character skill or fortune). Archipelago might offer a good fit as well.

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I wonder if there’s a way to sort of combine what you’re saying, @edige23 and @brownorama.

One of the things that’s super cool about Watchmen, in my opinion, is the wordplay around that phrase “Who watches the watchmen?”

Because beyond the thematic ways the story addresses that question, we have the Watchmen super-team, obviously, and we also have the recurring motif of a literal watch and Jon as a watchmaker’s son, the doomsday clock ticking down, and even the Minutemen (which I only just recently noticed was another clock/time pun). Plus, there’s the thematic stuff related to time with Dr. Manhattan, the clockwork storytelling structures (in which the entire story locks together perfectly)…

So what I’m imagining is a system where you literally just pick a word, color, etc., and then get some sort of bennie (or there’s something else that triggers) whenever you use that word.

Could be interesting…

(@Paul_T does this help clarify the kind of stuff I’m interested in exploring?)

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I know this is out there and I haven’t seen this series yet so take this with a grain of salt and it may be a bit off topic but…

What if someone used the Kids from Bikes framework to create this? In a way, everyone is helpless compared to Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. You could be play the Minutemen like team plus everyone takes turns as the actual Power Character. The GM would create a standard super hero plot and also an existential crisis that only the Power Character can solve.

Meanwhile, if you still had the Power Character control matter / time / atoms, this character could create scenes out of time order (ala Microscope) and the rest of the team would move in a standard chronological way. The other PCs story would then dovetail into scenes with the SUPER. And, the SUPER could pop into any current scene from nowhere.

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It would be interesting to try to approximate something like Alan Moore’s hyper-structuralist approach in an improvisational context. The first thing that comes to mind for me, as a cartoonist, is the way he employs a strict 9-panel grid to create a very measured pace (tick-tick-tick), yet another outgrowth of the watch/clock theme. It would be interesting to see a game play with this idea of structure dictated by theme (or vice-versa). (Don’t get me started on Big Numbers).

I can imagine a set of cards, each with a simple icon or image on it, from which you randomly draw one at the beginning of the session (arrow pointing in a circle, pyramid, spiral, etc.) and place it in the middle of the table. This card establishes the primary recurring visual motif, and players use it as a basis to riff on themes. Everyone agrees on a primary theme and two related, secondary themes, and those get written down for all to see. Everyone together creates setting, characters, etc. (Fiasco-style?), and you play things out scene-by-scene, using the card as a thematic referent.

Each card symbol would have an associated structure, so that, for instance, the arrow pointing in the circle would dictate a cyclical or recursive scene structure; the pyramid would dictate a narrative that starts broadly, across many disparate scenes and characters that get winnowed down as you move up toward the apex (or vice versa); the spiral would dictate an inexorable inward or outward movement. Maybe there’s a formalized way to determine the number and length of scenes based on the symbol, as well.

I think that reincorporation, mentioned above by @edige23, and something in which many GMs and players are already well-versed, would be an essential formal component for game that takes up this idea.

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This is so cool and exactly the kind of thing I’m thinking about. Time to make a deck!

I’d also be interested in exploring the hyper-structuralism through ritual phrases and rigid constraints. Like if you generated through your setup a word or phrase, and that word must be used in every scene (either as dialogue or description), signaling the end of the scene.

Or, to push it in a different direction, scenes that must begin with the same word as the last one of the previous scene.

Obviously, these could be incorporated into the rules around the cards you suggest.

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Swords Without Master does this a little with motif, but, of course, it only really shows at the end when the table has to reincorporate the motifs — BUT, I think that idea could definitely be expanded *~

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Such a great concept! This gave me another idea. Take the 9 card page setup and then add inserts into the cards like the card crafting game Mystic Vale so each player could add to the card played and the imagery / themes. Even a border means something in comics.

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As has been toched upon upthread, if you want the players to do something all you really need to do is reward them for doing it. If you want the players to riff on established themes or motifs, give them stuff (xp, bennies, +1 forwards) for it and they’ll be riffing up a storm.

Making a hyper-structuralist rpg is an interesting idea. You would need to find and define the structures you want to focus on. Is it the session and the structure of the session? Is it the scene? How does dice rolling figure into it (if there are dice)?

It’s certainly an interesting exercise.

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If I can gently push back, I think rewarding player behavior is definitely a big part of it, but I’m not convinced it’s all you need.

Mostly I think it’s also important to help players both come up with things they might not come up with on their own and avoid making paths that won’t be fruitful (especially when they may seem fine at first glance). For the former, I’m thinking of a classic: Random tables. For the latter, I’m thinking of rules like Microscope’s scene structure, which is built around a question and ends immediately when the question is answered — it’s a way to avoid getting mired in aimless scenes.

I think you probably need both of those tools (and others) if you’re trying to create a highly structured story. I’m not sure how mechanical incentives would ever be enough to get people to, say, bring a story to a satisfying conclusion or introduce a surprising-but-inevitable twist.

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You’re right, I was being too flippant there. You do need a good way to produce the themes and motifs and whatnot in addition to the motivation to reference them.

For my card driven storytelling game I’ve been trying out using cards to produce themes in the style of “What’s more important/powerful: X or Y?” with X and Y being things like love, power, money, loyalty etc. That’s similar to using random tables, which is something I’m also a fan of.

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Indeed! I am now thinking this but with 6 part tarot sized cards (left/ right side, top/middle/bottom) + borders. Each player would add a card to a “'panel”.

Each card would have a section with a number and another with a symbol. The symbol may even be a word bubble. Then, the GM player sets the scene based on the symbols and numbers. 3 of these cards make a “page”?

Not sure…just spitballing and it would probably take a better game designer and artist than me to get it done.

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This sounds super cool! I love the idea of collaboratively building an abstract map of the narrative/thematic/motivic terrain.

Not exactly the same thing, but it’s related so I’m curious: Have you played the party game Joking Hazard? It’s kind of like Cards Against Humanity (including the dark sense of humor) but you build three panel comic strips. I find it much funnier and more creatively satisfying than CAH.

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I can’t quite visualize what you’re going for here, but it sounds intriguing.

Working with the symbols sounds interesting, but I think you’d need something in the setup where you associate them with at least initial concepts. (One advantage of using symbols instead of words is that the symbols can take on additional meanings easier than the words. A circle with an arrow inside it could initially represent “time” because it looks a bit like a clockface, but it could also come to take on meanings like “captivity” or “limits” or “direction”.

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Here is a visual from the game that forms my inspiration.

Mystic Vale expansion on ebay but instead of these fantasy images you include a comic strip background, comic strip imagery, and numbers.

Michael S. Miller’s With Great Power (Master Edition) hacks Swords Without Master for the superhero genre. Worth taking a look at as you pursue this design. Also, I suspect Jared Sorensen’s unfinished Dark Pages project might be worth tracking down as well.

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