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Surreal Soapish Storytelling


When, in late 1990, I started watching Twin Peaks for the first time, there was no way I could guess that, years after, it would become my main source of inspiration as a games master. At the time I was still playing Dungeons & Dragons, so there was little I could salvage from a bizarre soap opera with a touch of dark humour and subtle hints of the supernatural. Only when I picked up Kult, Vampire, and other more narratively inclined games, did David Lynch’s cult TV show have any effect on my role-playing game scenarios. But, even then, I wasn’t quite aware of it.

Nowadays, I obviously know most of my storylines are structured like twisted soap operas; those that were published through Postmortem Studios in particular. Having watched a lot of Brazilian “telenovelas” – the South-American version of soap operas – during childhood and early teenage years certainly played a part in that as well. But, quite frankly, I never enjoyed them, and I still don’t. Anyway, even those aren’t as shallow as they seem: there are Shakespearean, Greek mythology and magical realism references throughout most Brazilian TV productions of the genre.

Watching Lynch’s work introduced me to the ingredient that makes the typically “soapish” web of intrigue – the patchwork of love affairs, betrayal and bitter rivalry – much more interesting: surrealism. Yes, at first it still feels like bland and corny melodrama, but that should quickly fade away and give rise to something else, something strange: a mix of stereotyped, vapid characters and facile affairs which acquire a whole new level of complexity whenever there’s a dark undertone playing beneath it. Mulholland Dr. (2001), also by David Lynch, applied the same recipe, with arguably an even more glorious effect. After all that was film, not television…

Kyle MacLachlan as Special Agent Dale Cooper

Dark humour also helps turning that daytime drama story into an entirely different beast. In Twin Peaks there was a show-within-the show titled Invitation to Love, a very inane, clichéd serial, that some of the characters, among them Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson), Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick) and Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), were following with interest. The absurdly kitsch Invitation to Love was, partly, an inside joke about the series’ cannibalization of TV tropes. It also offered viewers a subtle and weird reflection on Twin Peaks’ unfolding narrative. Mark Frost himself, co-author of the cult TV series, called it “a cultural compost heap” at the time of its release.

Writing scenarios using such a recipe is certainly time-consuming. This isn’t your low-prep game session material; far from it. Developing a cast of characters with underlying tensions and interconnected secrets takes time and effort. It probably only pays-off to write something like that when you plan to run it as a mid-sized campaign, or as a setting you pick up regularly for one-shots. Or you can also buy it, already developed, obviously. The main advantage of this modus operandi (read this in Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole’s voice, please) is that the previous hard work has already laid the foundation for whatever comes next. You can even run it with several different groups without turning it into a repetitive chore. Just add some new player characters, all the rest is already at hand, but the drama is bound to unfold in different ways, with distinct groups of people.

While writing Welcome to St. Cloud the formula for surreal soap opera ambiance adapted to role-playing scenarios turned clearer to me. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which heavily influenced St. Cloud, was presented as a crime drama, and it does start like one, aside from a few strange events, like fish stuck in percolators and Special Agent Dale Cooper’s (Kyle MacLachlan) idiosyncrasies. However, it doesn’t take too long before the offbeat and nightmarish incidents start. It was at that moment a sizable chunk of the audience gave up on the series back in the ‘90s despite, at first, having been a hit. Welcome to St. Cloud is meant to have the same kind of dark undertone. In the beginning, the town is introduced as a wholesome and traditional North-American community, which has been almost oblivious to the outside world for decades. However, behind that flimsy façade of normalcy, there are quite a lot of untold tragic and sinister stories. Some of them are no more than dirty little secrets, but there are also hidden fetishes, betrayals, love affairs and even crimes, that will shatter the whole town if they are let out in the open. And they will be!

Even before you start introducing the inhabitant’s ghastly secrets, it is already clear that there’s something wrong about that community, as it happened with that world-famous fictional place in the state of Washington. St. Cloudians are unconsciously aware of an enigmatic evil manifestation in the woods east of town, but they try very hard to conceal it, not really from outsiders, but mostly from themselves. That vile presence can be either supernatural in nature or just a symbol for the local folks’ own wickedness over successive generations. No matter how many intricate theories Twin Peak’s fans come up with, I’ve always preferred the more mundane explanations. There’s probably nothing otherworldly about it, just regular human nastiness. Naturally, in Welcome to St. Cloud, being a role-playing setting for a modern horror game (Actual Fucking Monsters) it does help having the occult and the paranormal to fall back on.

Welcome to St. Cloud wasn’t my first experience in dealing with a weird nexus of relationships. The Memorial was – long before I translated it into English, and decided to introduce themes from Italian giallo and “video nasties” – mainly influenced by Lars Von Trier’s Riget (1994) which, in turn, had in Twin Peaks an explicit source of inspiration. The Danish filmmakers’ TV drama is probably as surreal as Lynch’s – even if less labyrinthine –, but also leans on a mesh of conflict, affairs and feuding amongst its characters. It was quite “soapish”, although not as obviously so as Lynch’s seminal show. As for Orpheum Lofts, the first in my trilogy of giallo scenarios, its influences are also rather transparent. Under the Italian thriller atmosphere there’s obviously a cast of flawed characters, torn apart by internal conflict, which would belong in any American soap opera. The Sisters of the Seven Sins doesn’t quite fit the same category, as it was set in Portugal in the 1970s. Although its mood does not conform at all to a daytime serial portrayal of events, that doesn’t change the fact that it was structured around several nucleus of characters within which rivalries and dalliances are inevitable.

In this post I’ve been emphasizing the melodramatic side of Twin Peak’s influence over my role-playing writing, but the surreal facet is equally relevant. Since I started running horror RPGs as a game master (or Keeper, or Storyteller, or any other appropriate fancy title) I often noticed that introducing bizarre events and quirky or totally unhinged characters eases the burden of improvisation around the table. It probably works almost as well within the bounds of other genres, but my experience has been mainly in horror; especially modern horror. A considerable number of role players are wired to rationalize the events in the fiction, no matter how outlandish they are.

Quirky characters are a trademark of Lynch’s work

Games like Call of Cthulhu (or just about any other iteration of Lovecraftian Mythos) have taught people to accept unusual happenings as clues to a mystery and, as soon as you introduce a hint of strangeness, they will most likely try to identify patterns and ascertain causes. As David Lynch wrote in his book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity (which I strongly recommend to anyone who wishes to introduce tones of bizarre in role playing): “Cinema is a lot like music. It can be very abstract, but people have a yearning to make intellectual sense of it, to put it right into words. And when they can’t do that, it feels frustrating. But they can come up with an explanation from within, if they just allow it.”

So, when a game master throws in something enigmatic, even if at the time there was no obscure meaning at all, it will probably acquire some new significance in the players’ inquisitive minds. That’s a trick I have often used over the years and that achieved excellent results when applied to my own group of players in both Welcome to St. Cloud and the giallo trilogy.  If the player’s explanation can somehow fit the narrative, the best thing for a games master to do is to go along with it. There’s a very strong probability that the outcome will be very positive, story-wise. Again, in Mr Lynch’s words (writing about Mulholland Dr): “The Box and The Key. I don’t have a clue what those are.” How many theories have you heard about it?


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