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Review – Hamlet’s Hit Points
Posted By John Arcadian On August 2, 2010 @ 12:30 am In Reviews | 7 Comments
On Thursday I read about a new book by called Hamlet’s Hit Points coming out through Gameplaywright Press. Their book Things We think About Games is a carry everywhere book for me. It sits in my very-manly-not-a-purse courier bag alongside a few other books, work things, and the odd death ray or two. Hamlet’s Hit Points is written by Robin D. Laws, and when I saw the announcement of this title I immediately realized it was related to some things I’d read on Robin’s blog about mapping out the narrative ups and downs of Hamlet. I shot an email to the publishers and asked if they were interested in having it reviewed. They got me an advance copy to look at and I spent a fair chunk of my weekend engrossed by it.
What is it?
Hamlet’s Hit Points (HHP) is a book that analyzes three stories (Hamlet, Dr. No, and Casablanca) using a system called Beat Analysis. The system was crafted by Robin Laws and is a way to categorize the elements that create the emotional ups and downs, dramatic turns, and changing pacing of stories in their relation to the audience’s emotional response. In short, this is a book that teaches you to analyze stories with a new and very interesting system. It does this in a few ways that make the Beat Analysis system very easy to grasp. First it explains the elements and how they apply to stories. Once you’ve got a decent grasp on what Beat Analysis is, the book analyzes three different stories scene-by-scene to show you the system in play. After that a final section on utilizing the system talks about how to apply it yourself. While the book talks about a play and two movies, this is definitely a hardcore gaming book. HHP goes in-depth into working Beat Analysis into roleplaying games and analyzing the three stories in terms of how they might play out as roleplaying games..
Hamlet’s Hit Points deals heavily with meta thought about role-playing games and the narrative elements contained therein. For those of you who might be scared off by that statement, don’t be. HHP works relentlessly to make sure that it is relevant to gamers and the kinds of situations we encounter in our games. This isn’t a book that requires a degree to read. If you’ve ever read Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, you know that Laws’ style is easily accessible, even when dealing with very complex concepts. That style holds true in HHP. Even without the clear and easy to follow text analysis of the scenes, the graphic representation of the Beat Analysis system makes it easy to use.
In The Beginning
A beginning essay talks about how roleplaying games evolved into narratives from wargaming. This isn’t a history lesson but an examination of the generalities of this evolution. It looks at how roleplaying games evolved from experience points to the addition of NPCs and elements outside the “kill it and take its treasure” paradigm to the development of character backstsories. From there it talks about how games branched out into the modern roleplaying landscape. It also discusses how little linked roleplaying is to the narrative methods used in other forms of media and how that makes sense, given the way role-playing narrative is structured for the audience/participants in order to interact and change the story. The beginning essay is a great read for any gamer.
The primary purpose of this book ise teaching the Beat Analysis system, and the book does it well. So what exactly are beats? Well, according to the first section of the book "How To Pretend You’ve Read this Book”, beats are the story divided into separate moments that alter or reinforces the audience’s responses. At the heart of this thought is how all of the various elements of the story work to created the rhythm and action that influence the audience’s emotional response. A beat is simply a story element that causes a response.
I can best, personally, think of this in terms of music. Each section of a song draws the listener in and each part reinforces an emotional response. The song’s use of minor tonality or major tonality, the lyrical choices, movement between notes and melodic hooks in each section, and every other element of the song changes the listener’s response to the song. A great example of this is in the Dresden Doll’s song Coin Operated Boy. At about one minute forty into the song the melody, lyric composition, and chords change. The lyrics point out the change: “This bridge was written to make you feel smitten-er with my sad picture of girl getting biterr-er.” Beat analysis analyzes those moments and changes to give a very clear map of how a story progresses and affects the audience. It looks like this:
The above image is a beat map right out of the example section of the book. Each of the icons are beats of various types and the arrows point their upward or downward influence. The Pipe represents information being provided, the Question Mark represents curiosity being engages, the Gears icon is a procedural beat that represents some action for moving close or farther away from a goal.
Hamlet’s Hit Points tells us that beats consist of 2 things1:
The type tells you what purpose the beat performs in the narrative. Beats may perform multiple functions, particularly during key moments.
The resolution marks the emotional state engendered in the audience by the beat as it closes.
As far as types go, there are multiple: Procedural, Drama, Commentary, Anticipation, Gratification, Reveal, and many others. For any type of story element or emotional response from the audience, HHP defines a beat with a short description and an icon that graphically represents the idea behind the type of beat. The icons are key and work excellently as signposts throughout the book. The Icons were created by Craig S. Grant and are Creative Commons Licensed. Gameplaywright will release a set on their website for people who want to make their own beat maps. Here is an example of one of the beat icons explained.
The Beat Map
So far the book has explained a style of describing elements of the story in terms of Beats of various types. So why is this important to the rest of the book, and how does this relate to roleplaying? The Beat Map. The beat map is a visual map of how the story plays out narratively, moving up and down in the Hope/Fear cycle. According to HHP, hope and fear are the two primary emotional responses from an audience. Manipulating between these two emotions (hope for the characters, fear for failure, hope for the characters because of the antagonist’s discovered weakness, fear because of the falling of a comrade, etc.) engages the audience and builds emotional tension. As can be seen above, the Beat Maps and icons provide a very easy to understand roadmap for seeing how a story, scene, or individual elements of a narrative play out.
The Core Of The Book
The majority of pages in the book are dedicated to applying beat analysis to Hamlet, Dr. No, & Casablanca (a personal favorite). This provides three examples of the system in action by applying it to stories that we, as gamers, are likely familiar with outside of roleplaying. As far as story choice goes, these three are great stories to work with. I feel that it is safe to say much of the populace is already familiar with at least one of these three. In terms of roleplaying, these three stories fit well into a gaming mindset. I could see any of them being recreated as a role-playing game, especially after reading the book.
The section I read most in-depth was the Hamlet Analysis, as Laws’ talked about it on his blog. Here, and throughout the rest of the book, beat maps punctuate every section. The story analysis portion of the book is very sectioned off, dividing itself into sections defined by beats. Following the beat maps then reading the narrative analysis gives you a very in-depth look into how the story moves in each scene and overall.
The analysis of various beats are more than just how the narrative plays out. The analysis of the majority of the beats in each story go over how this scenario would play out in a role-playing game. They point back to how a certain scene would play out between PCs or how dialogue between NPCs could be done off-stage without making players feel alienated. When meeting the ghost, Horatio would likely be called on to make a roll of a religion or occult skill to determine if he knows whether the ghost can talk or not. This kind of analysis is consistent in the Hamlet section from beginning to end. Reading the roleplaying elements throughout the Hamlet section makes me want to run a Hamlet based roleplaying game. This thought would seem highly untenable to me before reading this book, but the analysis and beat mapping of this story show me how the narrative could be translated well into a roleplaying experience.
If you would like to see more examples of this at work, check out Laws’ initial analysis of Hamlet on his blog. There are many, but they are tagged beat analysis:
Asides in the book define some of the terms which might not be common to readers. There were a few terms I wasn’t familiar with, but none that weren’t explained well. Some of these terms came from the theater and acting world, some came from academic narrative analysis. No matter where the terms came from they were clearly defined in simple asides that related back to their use in roleplaying. Reading just the asides in this book would provide a new lexicon for any gamer.
In some of the stories narrative analysis overtakes defining it in terms of gaming, but this is natural and occurs when necessary. The beginning of the analysis of Dr. No, for example, focuses on the narrative elements since it would most likely be backstory inside of a game. When Bond is introduced into the story a point is made that Dr. No would clearly be a solo game with on PC and multiple NPCs who are there to help or foil the player’s character of Bond.
Each section treats the analysis of the story a little differently. Since each story comes from very different times and styles this makes sense. It also breaks up the analysis section of the book nicely. I found myself enjoying Dr. No’s analysis for entirely different reasons than I enjoyed Casablanca’s analysis. The roleplaying analysis for Dr. No and Casblanca play out much more in the asides. They still connect the stories to RPG scenarios, they do so in a different way. No part of the book doesn’t work from a roleplaying perspective. Summary and introductions of the stories are kept short, in order to focus on the beat maps and analysis.
Applying The System
While the bulk of the book details the beat mapping and analysis of its three stories, the final section is the real gold of this book. This is where it describes how to apply beat mapping and analysis to your own stories. It also looks at how to do this when you don’t have a finished story to analyze. A sub-section called Scenario Beats focuses almost entirely on how to beat map a scenario you are writing. It also addresses how to apply it to pre-written scenarios like published adventures. Another sub-section called Session Beats talks about the use of beats and beat mapping in a game currently being played. I can see utilizing the beat mapping system in highly narrative games to determine my next move as the Game Master. Applying The System takes what was presented in the previous sections of the book and overcomes any hindrances to using the beat mapping and analysis system for your own games.
Reading the description of this book and having a vague knowledge from reading Laws’ posts, the one fear that I had was that it would be too high brow or would focus on the narrative elements and not their integration into gaming.This wasn’t a big fear, knowing the reputations of the people involved, but I could see the subject matter defining the concept. I can definitely say that this is not the case. In HHP, laws says that Story construction is alchemy, not science.2 This paradigm is readily discernable throughout the writing. I was impressed by how well Hamlet’s Hit Points related the analysis of the stories back to roleplaying. Utilizing asides and the picking apart of each scene, HHP points out how scenarios in the subjects might occur in the game, and even at the table. They point out where a certain conversation in Dr. No might have been created by the players joking about one player’s choice not to min-max the firearm table and take a Walter PPK. The book also talks about how players might not react in the ways that a story dictates their character to act or their characters own abilities say they might. The book definitely realizes the unique role of player and Game Master as both audience and creator of the story. The beat map structure is an excellent way to map out the emotional and narrative arcs in any story. Hamlet’s Hit Points is going right into my carry everywhere bag. This is the type of book I’ll go to again and again as I build campaigns and story arcs.
For those of you attending Gencon, Hamlet’s Hit Points will be on sale Indie Press Revolution and Adventure Retail booths. There will also be a seminar at 10 AM on Friday about the book.
While this was a review, community feedback is incredibly important to us. What do you think about this system of analyzing a story? Do you have any tools you utilize when building the narrative of your campaigns?
Images used with permission.
1 Hamlet’s Hit Points – Page 15
2 Hamlet’s Hit Points – Page 13
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