Epic Structure: Wandering Spotlight

2007 Mar 2

As part of a book club for work (don’t ask), I’m reading Pearl Buck’s out-of-print translation of Shuihu Zhuan (Outlaws of the Marsh, The Water Margin), which she arbitrarily decided to call All Men Are Brothers. It’s a 700-page, illustrated tome of awesomeness. But what I’m concerned with here is the structure of the narrative, which is something that I don’t think roleplaying knows how to handle very well.

Unlike the One Thousand Nights and a Night, the Shuihu Zhuan has no frame story on both ends. It does, however, begin with a tale very much like “Pandora’s Box,” in which the arrogant Commander Hong frees an entire horde of evil spirits out into the world. Each of these spirits, as we’ll discover later on, represents one of the main outlaws of the epic. The characters are loosed from their cage in order that the might perform their story for us. This is interesting, but not the part I want to dwell on.

Let’s talk about the first 2 chapters and the prologue. Like all Chinese epics of this period, each chapter has a title in two parts, each part describing one of the main plot points of that chapter. In Buck’s translations these are given as:

1. Chang, the Heavenly King, Chief of the Taoists, beseeches the Gods to drive away the evil flux.
2. The Commander Hung, in heedlessness, frees the spirits.

1. Wang the Chief Instructor goes secretly to Yien An Fu.
2. The Nine Dragoned makes a mighty turmoil at the Village of the Shih Family.

1. Shih Chin escapes by night from Hua Ying.
2. Captain Lu kills the bully of Kuangsi with his fists.

Simple enough, right? Okay, now watch who the central character of the narrative is as the story progresses.

1. Ch’en Tu, a Taoist hermit
2. Emperor Jen Chung
3. Commander Hung
4. Kao Ch’iu, a peasant who becomes a lord
5. Wang Ching, the head instructor
6. The two guards
7. Wang Ching
8. Shih Chin, a local thug
9. The Robber Chiefs
10. Shih Chin
11. The Robber Chiefs
12. Wang Shih, a servant
13. Shih Chin
14. Shin Chin
15. Lu Ta, a captain
16. Old Man Chin
17. Lu Ta
18. The people reacting to the butcher’s death.
19. Chief Wang and others
20. Lu Ta

What you have is a “rolling cast.” The story does not tarry overly long on any particular character, rather, it moves constantly, inventing minor characters and, just as easily, abandoning them as soon as they stop being the focus of the most interesting action. BUT! While it is focused on the two guards, those guards are the most interesting characters in the story, despite the fact that we’ll never see them again in the entire epic.

Also, note how there’s an overall sense of progress, how the characters slowly roll over and let new characters step to the front. The narrative spotlight is not going back and forth between several major characters (which is what roleplaying usually does). It does hover for a time around Wang Ching, Shi Chin, and Lu Ta, but you know eventually it will move on to other characters. Perhaps earlier characters will make appearances later on, possibly even be the spotlight character for a while, but the narrative is always looking for “new hosts.”

Also, look at the wide range of social positions among the characters. We have emperors and sages and we have average thugs. And the narrative flows easily back and forth between them, making no real distinction when it comes to deciding “where the interesting action is.” The plight of the local people is just as important as affairs of state or the emperor’s personal life.

Anyway, this is something I’m hoping we can try to emulate, possibly in a modified form in the Exalted hack. And more extensively in Four Nations.

6 Responses to “Epic Structure: Wandering Spotlight”

  1. Brennan Taylor Says:

    That is hot.

  2. Judd Says:

    I think Legends of Alyria is capable of that.

    I have to finish reading that one.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I love Outlaws of the Marsh. The All Men Are Brothers translation is my favorite. (I got a nice illustrated hardcover w/slipcase on ebay for $3!) You can find another good translation online and in print. The online uses Wade-Giles and the print uses Pinyin for the names. I much prefer the pinyin. Can’t remember the translator’s name right now.

    There may be something in the narrative form that could make for a cool rpg. But it would never fly with the folks I play with. They are very character centric and want to continue with the same characters. (Multi-character and generational are more my style as well.)

    I say this every time it comes up. I don’t get Exalted. I love all the sources that supposedly inspired the game. I say supposedly because the connection is lost on me.


  4. Matthijs Says:

    Are you familiar with Paul Masons “Outlaws of the Water Margin” RPG? I don’t think it can be found online anymore, but Viktor Haag’s apparently run a campaign with it.

  5. […] I talked about the rotating protagonist structure of the Water Margin back in March, where I outlined the protagonists for the first three chapters. If I could do that for the whole book, it would be pretty helpful for constructing the oracle, I […]

  6. Josh W Says:

    Although I think this is really tidy, isn’t it antithetical to the focus of Exalted? The river of plot makes a big statement about change and individuals, the semi-taoist one that changes pretty much do themselves, and are not anchored to a single will. In rpg terms this is sort of like how npcs can behave, because it is a detachment of higher level authorial power from the purposes of a single individual character.

    You could play that one out in universalis by hacking the “possession” rules, so that characters participate simultaneously in different themes that have nuances added to them, with them providing fleeting anchors for events and points of connection between the themes.

    The tricky part in all of this is sufficiently fleshing out each of those characters, a work like this also shows off characterisation skill like flashy guitar solos show off tapping, replicating it may take building in a bit of practice. That was my idea with the “themes”, as starting building blocks to aid constructing a character, as well as carry the narrative.

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