Originally posted August 2008
I’ve been watching Hustle, and I’m really enjoying it. In the course of the last few episodes, I finally realized why I love caper stories: it’s pure empowerment fantasy in a story style that’s normally dominated by disempowerment fantasy. There’s a substantial overlap between caper stories and typical crime drama, but in the caper the viewer can normally expect that anything that looks like the characters getting ground down is going to be revealed as essential to the plan. The disempowerment agenda of “wait until my favorite characters get back at you, you villain” is replaced by an empowerment agenda of “you villain, you’re just digging yourself in deeper as to how screwed you are, and you don’t even realize it.” It makes me happy.
And I’m wondering how hard it would be to replicate that feeling in an RPG.
It would probably require a very careful agreement between the players and the GM: each character is going to buy similar skills related to crime and deceit, and yet somehow each fill a distinct role on the team, all while making sure to note that if it comes to an unstaged combat, they’ve pretty much lost. And then, on top of all of that, they have to be really really clever to set up plans and roleplay exceptionally. It’s no picnic for the GM to set up a valid challenge to interact with either.
I wonder if some of those latter difficulties couldn’t be mitigated, though, by using a system that allows dramatic editing. The GM lays out a general scenario/objective and then the players engage in generic on-screen setup actions/character building and farm drama points based on successes. As the caper goes down, the players spend these accumulated points to retcon in the off-screen results of their earlier setup (the traditional caper flashback sequence). Suddenly, a situation that looked like the characters would have a huge difficulty getting out of it turns around to enemies being in on the con, key props hidden in accessible locations, and actions timed to account for police intervention.
I wonder if it’d actually be fun played out, or whether it would just feel like a contrived exercise in shared narration. Maybe you could spice it up by making the setup phase an essential part of the game: each action to farm drama points uses up operating capital and time, such that the players may decide to make due with fewer points to get a bigger payoff.