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Literature / Hamlet's Hit Points

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Hamlet's Hit Points is a 2010 non-fiction book by Robin Laws consisting of three parts:

  • "Surprised by Story", an essay on the origins of storytelling in Tabletop RPGs
  • "Beat Analysis", wherein Laws postulates his theory of Narrative Beats and identifies nine basic types
  • Three detailed case studies applying his theory to Hamlet, Dr. No, and Casablanca and extracting lessons from them on how to improve improvised storytelling in RPGs
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See also Blowing Up The Movies.


The book discusses following tropes:

  • Author Filibuster: The Commentary beat is basically this: the author puts the story on hold to get something off their chest.
  • Character Development: In Laws' theory, this mainly occurs via Dramatic beats, wherein one character attempts to exert a measure of emotional control over another (or over themselves). In doing so or in failing to, they both reveal things about themselves and evolve as individuals.
  • Continuity Creep: In "Surprised by Story", Laws argues that narrative crept into the Tabletop RPG medium as an unbidden and unintended side effect of inventing Experience Points: if not for them, each Player Character's slate would be wiped clean after every dungeon, precluding any meaningful Character Development and with it, any storytelling.
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  • Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy:invoked Discussed as a possible outcome of too many downward beat resolutions (i.e. ones that make us fear for the characters).
  • Executive Meddling:invoked Discussed in regards to the reasons why mainstream blockbusters often fail to deliver cohesive stories: Laws argues that their producers and executives have trained themselves to view narrative as just the glue to hold various Gratification beats together.
  • Fandom Heresy:invoked Discussed in regards to role-players, specifically the ur-schism between efficient strategists and character actors.
  • Fanservice: Various forms of it usually comprise Gratification beats.
  • Foil: The book examines the concept in great depth, splitting it into Procedural and Dramatic variations. A procedural foil is a character whose incompetence and/or admiration of the protagonist highlights the latter's awesomeness (such as Felix Leiter to James Bond). A dramatic foil is a character who embodies either the choices the audience hopes the protagonist will make ("angelic foil", e.g. Obi-Wan to Luke) or the choices we fear they'll make ("demonic foil", e.g. Darth Vader). Interestingly, Laws argues against making player characters foils of each other, as it is hard enough for most players to manage their own character arc on the fly, let alone two or more at the same time.
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  • Foreshadowing: Pipe and Question beats are essentially this, setting up events to occur and mysteries to be answered later in the story.
  • Genre Turning Point:invoked Discussed in the pen-and-paper context, specifically the U-turn away from extremely elaborate and complex Game Systems of The '80s towards radically simpler ones, exemplified by Over the Edge in The '90s.
  • "Hell, Yes!" Moment: Anticipation beats are basically delays that foreshadow something awesome that's about to happen (like The Cavalry showing up).
  • Innocuously Important Episode: Well-written Pipes are this on a small scale. Ideally, the audience doesn't even register them as beats until much later, and they are often additionally wrapped into a more obvious Procedural or Dramatic beat to conceal their importance.
  • Lit Fic: Laws discusses the term occasionally, e.g. showing that most of literary fiction uses Question/Reveal beat pairs to maintain narrative suspense, since it shies away from physical jeopardy that provides suspense in more action-y works.
  • Morton's Fork: Laws calls this "non-branching obstacle" in RPG context, i.e. one that induces no change in the overall plot, regardless of whether it's passed, failed, or not tackled at all.
  • The Reveal: Reveal beats do just that: reveal things to the characters and/or the audience that they've wanted to know.
  • Sliding Scale of Plot Versus Characters: This belies the dichotomy of the two most common beats: Procedural beats advance the external plot, while the Dramatic beats facilitate internal Character Development. Laws explicitly mentions that works of fiction consisting primarily of Dramatic beats can offer little inspiration to gaming fans.
  • Tastes Like Diabetes:invoked Discussed as a possible outcome of too many upward beat resolutions (i.e. ones that make us hope for the characters).
  • You All Meet in an Inn: This default intro to a Dungeon Crawling adventure is used as a first example to demonstrate beat analysis in action.

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