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10 August 2008 @ 07:43 pm
Understanding Athelind's Argot: "Penguin Plotting".  
In the 1965 Batman tale, "Partners in Plunder" (Batman #169, February 1965), the Caped Crusader had to deal with that Felonious Fowl, The Penguin, in the second Silver Age Appearance of said scurrilous scofflaw.

The Dishonorable Mister Cobblepott, you see, had just been released from prison... again... and had the villain's equivalent of writer's block. He simply could not come up with a sufficiently flamboyant plot to be worthy of his attention -- and that of the Dynamic Duo.

What? Go straight? and give up the game?? Nonsense!!

Instead, in a flash of Genre Savvy inspiration, he came up with a plan to have Batman and Robin plan his next caper for him. He set up a seemingly-honest front selling his trademark umbrellas, and then pulled entirely random umbrella-related stunts around Gotham City: exploding umbrellas, giant, radio-controlled umbrellas, and more.

At one point, Batman and Robin show up in the umbrella shop to warn him that they're onto him, but, of course, they have no real proof. After they leave, Robin notes in puzzlement that Cobblepott was wearing his monocle on the wrong eye.

He plants a radio transmitter in one of the errant bumbershoots, and, when Batman and Robin have it in their hands, he cheerfully listens in as they piece together the "clues" he's left, figure out the "target" he plans to steal, and thoroughly detail the way they think he's going to pull it off.

He chortles, and goes through with exactly that crime, exactly the way they described it. He does tweak a few things, but to no avail; he winds up in their clutches anyway.

He doesn't care, though. Why not? Well, for one, the World's Greatest Detectives never figure out that they planned the job for him.

For another... they're still scratching their heads over the significance of the monocle.

And he reveals, to the reader alone... there was no significance. He put it in the wrong eye just to fuck with them.

This was later adapted into Burgess Meredith's two-part debut as The Penguin in the Adam West Batman TV show: "Fine Feathered Finks"/"The Penguin's a Jinx".

Reading this tale a few months back pretty much cemented Oswald's status as My Favorite Bat-Villain.

It also describes My GMing style -- or my most successful one, that is -- which is why it merits the Argot entry.

As a Game Host, the approach that works best to me is to have a general framework in mind, but be willing to change things on the fly -- and to be willing to take good suggestions from the player, whether they intended them as suggestions or not.

(The obvious extension of this, of course, is the Monocle Mystery: Always leave a loose end or two to mess with their heads.)

As an example:

In the first big adventure of the legacy2020 game, Robin rattled off this entirely reasonable chain of "villain profiling" logic that ended with, "so, obviously, Squid's hideout must be HERE."

I stopped, blinked, and realized that what Robin's player had come up with was far better than anything I'd thought of myself. So... there it was. Penguin Plotting prevailed!

eggshellhammer contrasts this with pixelbitching, "Like in the old adventure games, where you had to click just... the right... pixel... And it looked like every... other... pixel..."

I feel: geekygeeky
Greetings Fellow Comstoks!fengi on August 11th, 2008 03:46 am (UTC)
Wow. That would make an awesome Batman 3 - because you could adapt that plot for "dark adult" Batman with a a certain ease.
Your Obedient Serpent: hoard potatoathelind on August 11th, 2008 05:56 am (UTC)
I dunno. It depends rather heavily on the Golden/Silver Age Batman Trope of Villains Leaving Ridiculous, Flamboyant "Clues" and, more importantly, the Dynamic Duo making Implausible Leaps of Logic to figure out what they MEAN.
doc_mysterydoc_mystery on August 11th, 2008 04:55 am (UTC)
In my ancient essay "The Pulp Avengers", check out the final paragraph in section V: Bizarre Mystery and Crime (you need to scroll down as the embedded link doesn't work). http://www.fantasylibrary.com/lounge/pulpavengers.htm

There may be occasions when you are absolutely, positively stuck for an idea for making a pulp mystery for your players. One handy trick a GM can use to create mysteries on the fly is to simply throw out random clues like crazy, and then listen carefully as your players try to make some sense of all these different clues and suspects. When your players first come up with solution that seems to fit all the random clues you have provided, and also implicates a certain NPC as the villain, give that NPC suspect an alibi. Later in the adventure you can pass on information to the PCs that invalidates this alibi. Not only will your players feel smug that they have solved the mystery and defeated the villain, but they'll have written much of the plot and have done much of the work of creating the mystery for you as well!

I didn't know it was called "Penguin Plotting"!

Your Obedient Serpent: big ideasathelind on August 11th, 2008 05:57 am (UTC)
It wasn't, until today!
silussa on August 11th, 2008 06:01 am (UTC)
I had a GM once who allowed the players to go off on completely the wrong tangent, based on a series of dice rolls regarding whether certain people's names were in a prostitute's customer book.

Under the circumstances, it would have made more sense if he HAD changed the plot to match. ;)
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on August 11th, 2008 09:07 am (UTC)
I don't do Penguin Plotting, hehe, and I think the reason it works is because most games simply fail to address how to actually get information out to a character.

I mean, for me, why plotting a game used to fail, for detective stuff in particular, is that the way most games have a person find out information is a ROLL. And either the roll is so easy to make the GM might as well give out the information they want to give out without the roll, or the whole game hinges on their ability to make a single difficult roll. Y'know, unless they make that Cthulhu Mythos check they'll never know the Evil Baby-Daddy's weakness so they can send it back to it's antediluvian tomb or whatever.

What information gathering tasks doesn't have is some management system. In most games, er, I just use hit points. I'll just give you the link so you can read what I came up with, hehe. Here it is.
The Weasel Kingtheweaselking on August 11th, 2008 01:14 pm (UTC)
I hate the rolls of that sort, too - at least for critical information. Noncritical information, I don't mind leaving to a roll.

I also find that, in mysteries, the GM knows how the plot is supposed to go and knows the answer, so he tends to connect the clues more easily than the PCs. This means that the GM will often think he's given enough information, but leave the PCs struggling.

So I tend to seed at least twice as many clues as I think they'll need, and they usually don't find all of them. The other thing I do isn't exactly "Penguin plotting", but I definitely listen to the players and modify things based on their ideas. If they come up with a way to check a theory that I didn't think of, I need to figure out what that will get them, on the spot - and if their theories are cooler than my original story, I have no problem stealing that.
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on August 11th, 2008 03:51 pm (UTC)
Oh, yeah, I've found as a GM things that are perfectly clear to me and totally opaque to my players. The guidelines I made are to just be able to give the players a sense of accomplishment about getting information that I want to give them. I'm well aware one of the biggest problems in running an investigation based game is that they don't think like the GM to necessarily get all the "clues" the GM is giving them.
Jordan Greywolfjordangreywolf on August 15th, 2008 01:53 pm (UTC)
I definitely agree in regards to leaving more clues than are "necessary" - especially if there's a chance that they just won't even uncover them all. This has become especially necessary in my games because some of my most proactive players are also the WORST at sharing information with their fellows (without mangling it, anyway). I've had so many cases where one PC, on his own, goes off and gets some vital information ... and then sits on it. Drat it, I gave you a HANDOUT!

Or, potentially even worse, the player filters whatever information he got through his own biases (and/or wishful thinking), and it becomes like a child's game of "telephone."

Part of the "fun" from my perspective in having a clue-gathering game is that if someone gets a clue, he gets to have the honor of sharing the information with everyone else ... but that very same mechanism can cause its own problems - so I find it beneficial to make sure that the same information can come from multiple sources, for the sake of confirmation and clarification. (And, besides, the fact that you got the same clue from two reputable sources can help to give it weight over the red herring that was provided by a less reputable source ... who might, in all likelihood, given my experience, be a fellow PC. =P )
The Weasel Kingtheweaselking on August 15th, 2008 02:10 pm (UTC)
I really don't feel bad, in most games, about correcting a player as he relays inaccurate information. It doesn't happen often.

Of course, you've got to watch what game you're doing this in. Sometimes, there's a good reason for a player to be *deliberately lying* to another player, and you've just fucked up their chance.

(Also, especially in games like Vampire, sometimes the person will be lying and *the fact that they are lying should be immediately obvious* - but the receiving PLAYER doesn't know what the receiving CHARACTER should know, so sometimes you have to intercede anyway)

What happens in a lot of cases where there's a troupe game with a cooperative goal, the information is given to the one player who found it right in front of the other players - EVERY player hears what only the one character knows - and relaying it is as simple as saying. "Okay. I tell the other characters what I found" and going on.
Jordan Greywolfjordangreywolf on August 15th, 2008 02:51 pm (UTC)
That's what I have to be careful about. Sometimes, I can be honestly sure that it's a case where someone misheard me - and it's a bit of information his character should get RIGHT. (E.g., it's some information I gave him on account of his background, and the character doesn't seem the type to lie.) If I'm comfortable about that, I'll correct it on the spot.

It's just that with some other cases, I'm not sure whether the PC is deliberately obfuscating, or what. This is particularly the case at convention one-shot games, since some players seem to ENJOY playing their characters as meddlesome troublemakers, deliberately trying to keep something from the others, and get an "edge" on everyone else. (Though, last year, I ran a scenario where I declared that the PCs have been sailing together on this ship for quite some time, so it IS NOT REASONABLE that after so long spent protecting each others' backs, as soon as a player takes over, the PC turns into a crazy suicidal-homicidal psychopath, and I'm not going to stand for it.)

I've experimented of different ways of dealing with clue-dispensing, but I'm not quite settled on the "perfect" way (and it keeps getting unsettled as we get into new campaigns, with new situations, and new characters). Sometimes I'll pass a note, but sometimes I'll just say, "Okay, should I just give you the details out loud - and you can choose whether to share them 'in-character' with others - or do you want a note?" I suppose the risk of the latter is that, should the player choose to go with a note, the other players have reason to be suspicious - even if their PCs don't.

Anyway, in my current home game, I'm just back to that awkward situation where, for whatever reason, just about every player in the group (except for the priest) seems to have an incentive for hiding information or meddling with it before passing it on to others. The ship's captain is "overconfident" and therefore rephrases every bit of information she gets to confirm her own preset biases. The vampire ... is a vampire. The necromancer passes himself off as a mere "mage." The gunsmith-turned-mad-scientist is paranoid and nuts. Only the priest seems to have everyone else's interests consistently at heart when active ... but the player, who happens to live in the house, keeps on retreating to the couch, or to the other room to check email, and is often disengaged in general.

The Weasel Kingtheweaselking on August 15th, 2008 03:47 pm (UTC)
I ran a game a while back where the PCs were all monster hunters in an early-industrial low-fantasy setting (think Arcanum or Thief), where each PC was explicitly created with
A) A secret that bad for their health to be revealed
B) a bonus power or ability based on the secret, overt use of which would reveal the secret.

(For example, the party paladin-equivalent had been bitten by a werewolf, which, according to the rules of her order, means she must be killed immediately because lycanthropism is highly contagious and turns you into a ravening killer at the next full moon. Good news: She knows this isn't true, although she really can't tell anyone *why* she knows it isn't true. Bad news: She's discovered that she now heals without scarring, has very acute senses, and has an increased taste for rare meat...)

That was fun - and yes, it did lead to PCs hiding information from each other, but it was usually clear to me when they were doing so deliberately.
Hafochafoc on August 11th, 2008 05:57 pm (UTC)
You know... that's basically how I write. Only it's the characters that figure out the plot for me. Once you have interesting characters and they start telling you what they would do in any given situation, you've got the story.
ebony14 on August 12th, 2008 12:47 am (UTC)
People always badmouth the Penguin, but the Old Bird has been out of prison and Arkham longer than any other Bat-Villain. He's gone "straight." That is to say that he's crooked, the Bat knows he's crooked, GCPD knows he's crooked, and NO ONE can prove anything. He's a goddamned genius.

Also, back in the days when Joker was attacking Batman with giant Jack-in-the-Boxes and silly "deathtraps," Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot was wanted by the police on counts of multiple murder. Because, unlike most of the 70s Bat-Villains, the Penguin used a GUN (okay, it looked like an umbrella but it was still a gun).

Tubetoob on August 12th, 2008 01:18 am (UTC)
Damn you. I wanted to name a dragon "prince" in Old English for a story. Dammit.
Your Obedient Serpent: DRAGON!athelind on August 12th, 2008 01:26 am (UTC)

For those of you wondering why Toob is irked with Your Obedient Serpent:

"Prince" in Old English is "Atheling". It's the diminutive of æthelu, "Nobility".

"Athelind", on the other claw, means "Noble Serpent" in Old English.
Tubetoob on August 12th, 2008 01:44 am (UTC)
I believe I'll go with Athele. That's different enough that it shouldn't be a problem, don't you think?
Jordan Greywolfjordangreywolf on August 15th, 2008 02:04 pm (UTC)
Your style sounds like a somewhat more nuanced version of the style of the first (competent) GM that I ran into, in college, who ran several Champions/Hero System campaigns and one-shots, using original settings for each one. He'd go through a great deal of trouble to find out what things interested the players, and then make a setting to appeal to each of them. He also had a philosophy that could be summarized as, "If the players spend too much time staring at a crack in the wall, convinced that it's important ... then, by gum, it's IMPORTANT!"

At first, it made for a very compelling illusion: Somehow, I, as a player, felt incredibly lucky and uncharacteristically brilliant. How could I be *right* so often? That is, unless someone else disagreed with me, and then I knew there was a good chance I was wrong.... Anyway, it definitely kept things rolling, in that it seemed that wherever we went, that's where we were supposed to be for the next plot development. The trouble was, I think it went overboard. Some of the players seemed to catch on that whatever they did, the plot would rewrite itself around them, so they'd just "game the system" - and things got weird.

In my own campaigns, I would have problems where some players would seem reluctant to discuss things with other players in front of me, for fear that if they expressed fear of a danger, *it would come true*. If they spent too much time trying to account for the cleverness of their opposition, it would just make the opposition that much more clever. I've tried to dispel such notions in my players. There HAVE been times when I've necessarily switched things in my plots because, upon overhearing the players discuss things, I've suddenly realized that I've made a really stupid mistake. However, I try very hard to make sure that the universe isn't going to get an edge on the players because The Vengeful Gods Are Listening. I guess I've just got a group where, if they thought I was pulling a stunt like that, they'd see that as "cheating."

Not unless it's part of the campaign setting, that is! I did that once - a virtual environment that re-molded itself based on PC expectations - but that was an exception to the rule. A large part of the adventure was their eventual realization of this, and the opportunity they had to legitimately "game the system" in their own favor.

Pakapaka on August 16th, 2008 06:41 am (UTC)
Pssst! I saw this short comic story on DeviantArt, starting at http://monsterfink.deviantart.com/art/Page-1-94998151 - and because it has a vaguely draconic beastie as a tribute to all those early 60s Marvel monster comics, I thought of you of course.