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Enter... the Scary Door!

"You are entering the vicinity of an area adjacent to a location. The kind of place where there might be a monster, or some kind of weird mirror. These are just examples, it could also be something much better. Prepare to enter... The Scary Door!" - Futurama, "A Head In the Polls" (1999)

The Twilight Zone was created to be a disturbing mirror held up to our own reality, something we've brought up in this blog a few times during our past trips beyond The Dimension of Imagination and into the Fifth Dimension, and sometimes, especially lately, it can feel a bit too much like we’ve already slipped into the other side of that mirror. But Twilight Zone was always meant to have us think about the world around us and perhaps teach a lesson or two about it. And while The Scary Door may have just been a parody bit, that can teach us too, even if it's just to laugh at the things we love and at our own seriousness. Certainly, our own stories, tabletop and otherwise, are filled with seriousness and humor as well... just like The Twilight Zone (even if that humor could be quite dark at times). What ways can we bring the Zone into our stories and share in a little of timeless messages and humor? - A

A: Last time we spoke about Twilight Zone, I suggested bringing a literal table top into your tabletop games. While I haven’t used the concept myself (yet), I still think it's a fascinating idea. There are plenty of other Zone items and totems you can incorporate in various ways: living dolls, time-stopping stopwatches, or a phone to communicate with the dead... just to name a few. While I’m sure I could expound on how many items from Twilight Zone (or Scary Door, for that matter)  might be be brought into a game, I thought I'd first focus on bringing the titular Zone itself into a game, and save the items for another post. There are many ways the Twilight Zone could be entered (although characters don't always "enter" from our own world, per se). One might look in the wrong mirror, sleep in the wrong place, swim to the bottom of the wrong pool, minded their own business when strange things were afoot, or even - yes - walked through a scary door. If you’ve ever used dreams as a method of storytelling, we're on the same page. There are any number of ways to bring your players and characters into a "twilight zone as well." Settings outside our own world can even offer "in-universe" ways to achieve this, through magic items and alien relics - there is no reason they couldn’t shift the action into another dimension for a short session.

Why would we want to visit a Twilight Zone in our games when they already have their own rich universes, particularly when we feel so often like we’re living in one in our real lives? Even within our shared stories, there needs to be a bit of freedom to explore the alternate lives and realities of the characters. What would have happened if the group had negotiated with that demon a few sessions back, instead of attacking it? What if, all of a sudden, one character could temporarily see future outcomes? What would happen if the characters had to wear masks at a local lord’s event... and the masks started to deform their faces and reveal their innermost secrets? What would happen if…? That's something just about everyone likes to play with their ongoing characters or when planning out new ones. What would happen if they’d played an elf monk instead of a gnome bard? Touch the right magic relic and, for a little while, you just might find out. Unlike the show, though, it's probably best to avoid springing these concepts on players. You can still keep some aspects of the Zone hidden, even when they know from the start that they're in it. After all, when we enter the Twilight Zone on our own viewing devices, we're aware of what the show is. But while we know we’re going in there, we still might not know what we will find. Bugsy, how would you suggest incorporating a trip to the Twilight Zone at the tabletop?

B: When we talk about bringing The Twilight Zone to the table, we have to consider which aspect of the series we mean - some qualities simply won’t translate into satisfying games (under most circumstances). So the sense of inevitability, of powerlessness, of “turning the tables” undercuting many episodes needs to be treated gingerly to cut down on obvious GM railroading. (Although stories about actual railroads are probably fine, and GM-less games like Fiasco open up some interesting possibilities.) To me, one of the most magical things about the show was the way it could condense a high-concept story into a brief runtime, presenting it to the audience as something real and complete. As such, one-shots are probably the best approach, or, at least, self-contained narratives in which the recurring characters are dropped into something different each time. We can see a model for this in Twilight Zone-inspired series such as The X-Files, where the protagonists were the audience surrogates from our own world, dropped into unique, distinct stories.

Andy raises an important point in describing the ways a character may "enter" the Twilight Zone from our own world through liminal "in-between" states (the "middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, ... between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge" to quote Serling's Season 1 opening). But the connection to our own familiar reality is there, and assumed to be there, through Mulder and Scully, or the Twilight Zone's array of hapless protagonists coming from our own world, give or take a few centuries. Even in the future, when characters think of home, it resembles modern-day Earth. The trick behind many of the twist endings, then, is playing on that assumption, revealing it to not be what we thought it was. We assume Agnes Moorehead is a normal human person tormented by tiny aliens, but it turns out diminutive invaders were the humans, who have landed on a planet of giants. The couple who escape a doomed world we assume to be our own are actually our ancestors, arriving on Earth in the distant past. And so on. But despite being occasionally twisted by tricksy writers, this assumption is what makes the show work - the audience is given an accessible starting point, from which the descent into strangeness can occur.

In a way, this seems to run counter to the way we approach games, particularly of the tabletop variety. If there's a deviation from the players' own realities, they usually expect to know it going in. That's the reason they're playing this particular game, after all! But most media doesn't follow this model, the protagonists learn more about their world (and, in genre, its hidden secrets) over the course of a story. Even within totally fantastical settings this is still true: Luke Skywalker doesn't start off knowing the full capabilities and regimen of a Jedi Knight - he's barely aware of their existence. But even when accounting for the difference between player knowledge and character knowledge, tabletop games all too often operate under the assumption that everything is mutually understood. After all, there's only so much time to play.

Which brings us back to the one-shot. To do something evocative of that Twilight Zone feel, the starting point would need to be as basic as possible, which likely necessitates a generic ruleset. Luckily, there are plenty of those available these days, many for free online. (Might I suggest Risus?) The "what if" shouldn't be too big, either: it should be a specific change, but not a superficial one, and the effects of that change should be available for the players to explore. The story, then, will be more about their discoveries and experimentation than standard plot beats. Any threats they deal with will have to be situational in nature, rather than simply the machinations of some villain. Not that this doesn't allow for antagonistic characters - there's plenty of room for villains (the show had plenty to chew the scenery, with the Devil himself making repeated appearances), but the circumstances behind their action need to stem from whatever deviation has already presented. That "what if" still needs to be driving things. There will also need to be some sort of resolution, which may or may not take the form of a traditional "climax." Ultimately, it should be up to the players how things shake out - do they try to return things to the the way they were at the outset or keep the changes in place? Do they return to their "normal" lives, or vanish into the magical world they've opened up?

In any case, there does need to be some form of ending, even if it's not a "twist." It's really the classic format for a short story, and The Twilight Zone brought it to the screen in a way that made it feel "natural," giving us just that little bit of magic and the unexpected. That, I think, is our takeaway - it doesn't need to be a mindblowing revelation or a dark turn of events at the last minute, but that little shift away from the familiar and the expected (even, as Andy suggests, the expectations of an ongoing campaign) can lead the way to a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead, your next stop....

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