Unibrow for the win!
Spike said that the guy's unibrow in the latest page of her webcomic Templar, Arizona was inspired by mine. Boo-yah! Also there is a picture of all of us and the McCloud family if you scroll down below the comic. Also you should go back to the beginning of the archives and read all of Templar because it is strange and fascinating.
Support our troops!
So, last week I heard about this upcoming Ziggurat Con thing: Some American soldiers in Iraq are trying to have a gaming convention. In a war zone. They're like "We're gonna hold a LARP in the actual ruins of an actual ancient civilization!"
This morning I pulled all the RPG books off my shelf that I don't see myself ever playing again -- that included Vampire, AD&D 2nd ed, and Call of Cthulhu -- packed them in a box along with a set of dice, and mailed them off.
Y'all know how much I was against this war in the first place, but there's no reason to hold it against the troops. They're all volunteers, who got sent in for much longer than they ever expected their tour of duty to last, made to do a job they weren't trained for, getting blown up by car bombs, getting shot at by the people they're supposed to be protecting, with inadequate numbers and equipment, trying to do the impossible.
It's nice to say "Support our troops" but what does that actually mean? What does that corny yellow ribbon magnet on your car do for anyone? I don't have any close friends or family in the military, so this whole thing was kind of abstract. But when I heard about Ziggurat Con it really hit me on a visceral level that some of those soldiers are guys just like me. I could easily have been in their place if I had made some different decisions in life. Here's something simple and concrete I can do.
So, I hope this thing goes well, and I hope it raises everybody's morale and gets their minds off the tragedy for a little while. And I hope nobody gets shot by an RPG* when playing an RPG.
If you have any game stuff lying around that you'd like to donate, you can find the address through that link at the top of this post.
* (rocket propelled grenade)
Guess who I met last night!
Left to right: Spike, Dirk (waving his hand madly to get in the picture), Spike's husband Matt, and Scott McCloud (holding Pretz). We're all in the back room of a sleazy bakery in Chinatown.
Scott McCloud and his whole family are on a year-long tour of all fifty states. The Chicago Art Night group has been really wanting to get him to make a stop somewhere nearby while in Illinois, but it seemed like his schedule was just too busy -- then this morning Dirk emails all of us and says Surprise! Scott has agreed to meet us all for dinner at PPEENNAANNGG in Chinatown (I spell it like that because that's how it looks on the sign).
I didn't actually get to talk to Scott much, since everybody wanted his attention (also there were so many of us we had 2 tables and I was at the wrong one) but I did get to say hi and get him to sign a book and I gave him the URL for my comic. I'm sure I came off like a total fanboy but Scott was really nice and he didn't mind. Huzzah! Then I spent like an hour talking to his 11-year-old daughter Winter. She's amazingly precocious and a big fan of both Ranma 1/2 and Settlers of Catan, so we had a lot to talk about. I asked her if she and her sister had just dropped out of school to do this trip or what, and she said "Well legally we're being home-schooled..." with a bit of a guilty look. But I bet they're learning all kinds of stuff by traveling around the country that they would never get to learn in school anyway.
Yay warm fuzzy feelings!
I did a bad thing
Last Wednesday night I did a bad thing...
I played Magic the Gathering. And I enjoyed it! Nooo! Yeah, I played with Kat at the anime club. She only started playing last Fall. I haven't played since Urza's block, which was... what... 2000? 2001? Anybody remember the dates?
We've both been saying "Yeah we should play sometime" ever since the day I just happened to look over her shoulder at anime club one day and see that she was reading Wizards of the Coast's Magic website, but Wednesday was when it finally happened.
We both had to keep reading every card the other person played, since all of mine are so old she doesn't know them and all of hers are so new I don't know them. And so she was all like "Holy crap, only one land untaps a turn? And this only costs 2 mana? They'd never print something like that today!" and I was all like "Holy crap, there are like two mini cards on that card! What the hell is that?"
So yeah, it was fun. I burned out on buying cards and trying to compete in the tournament scene a long time ago, but despite my complaints, the basics of the game are still pretty fun. (It's not a hugely deep game, but it has a very high tactical-depth-to-play-time ratio compared to most games I know.) So I'm not going to get back into buying new cards, but I'll probably keep some of my now-considered-super-old-school decks around to pull out once in a while and show these young whipper-snappers how it's done.
Kat told me about going to a prelease tournament: "Yeah, I was one of four women there. So much pasty white fanboy man-flesh! (shudder)". Me: "I hope everyone had showered, at least." Kat: "Everybody I played against was fine, but I saw a couple people there and was like Oh God Please Don't Let Me Get Matched Up Against Him." Magic is even way more male-dominated than role-playing and stuff. I talked to another female nerd a while ago (this was at Art Night, I'll make that into another post) who said "Yeah, I used to play Magic, but all the other players were like Oh No A Woman You Can't Play With Us Cuz You Have Cooties. So I quit." Isn't that sad? We (and by we I mean gaming culture as a whole) really need to stamp out behavior like that and encourage the girl gamers to flourish. Any ideas?
Anyway, one of the decks I had was this super-cheap all-commons deck which is just a random heap of mountains, goblins, and burn spells, which does surprisingly well. It's all commons so I don't bother putting them in card wrappers or anything. I said "Watch this, I'm going to make every Magic nerd cry" and then I riffle-shuffled them, like a deck of playing cards. Kat laughed, and said "Somewhere across campus, my boyfriend just started crying and he doesn't know why." Geoff saw my shuffle from across the room and started screaming: "OH MY GOD WHAT ARE YOU DOING HOW CAN YOU DO THAT TO MAGIC CARDS THAT'S LIKE RAPING ORPHANS NOOOOOOOO!" Seriously, that's what he said, "raping orphans". I expected it would get a disapproving reaction but geez, that guy needs to get a little bit of perspective. Now every time I see Geoff I'm going to pantomime riffle-shuffling just to watch him wince.
Neko no te mo karitai!
Geez, this is steadily turning into a solid gaming blog, isn't it? I haven't written about politics or science or anime in a really long time. Eh, I'll get back to them at some point. Also, I'm aware that it's been a couple weeks since I've updated the Scariest Thing. It's just that I'm working on a very ambitious one and I've had several weekends when scheduled activities kept me from drawing. Also, here's what's currently on my plate:
Work. Running the beta test of an experimental Enso branch featuring an improved (but currently slower) autocomplete algorithm. Need to speed this up, debug it, clean up the code, and integrate it back into the trunk of development.
Trying to do Aikido at least three times a week. Usually in the mornings.
Trying to get some more pages done on this comic, which seems to be finally going in the direction I want it to go, i.e. being a story about the characters and not just a series of random nerdy in-jokes. (Although the random nerdy in-jokes will no doubt continue.)
Trying to set up an online shopping cart for Jacob's fledgeling game company, World Domination LLC.
Getting reference photos of the University of Chicago campus for Dan, who wants to start drawing a comic set there.
Getting props and costumes and sound effects ready for the anime club Anime Central skit. And learning my lines. And my dance moves. Oh yeah.
That cool programming side-project I mentioned a while back -- I need to get that to a reasonable working state and put it up in Google Code to share with everyone.
Submit a talk proposal to EuroPython, a python programmer's convention that's going to be held in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Organizing a time and place to play some of these crazy indie RPGs I keep talking about.
Getting my apartment cleaned up so that the place can maybe be my apartment!
Finding time to start contributing work on the OLPC project. (Gonna write a whole entry about this soon)
Finishing reading Song of Ice and Fire (or at least as much of it as has come out yet)
Signing up for a Warhammer 40k tournament that's going to be held outdoors in May in Wisconsin. I'm going to carpool up there with some people and we're going to camp out the night before the tournament. Camping plus warhammer! Huzzah!
Catching up on updating this site.
Scrounging up some things to donate to ZigguratCon. (Gonna write a whole entry about this soon.)
Which of the above do you most want me to get done? Leave a comment and bug me about it!
Who's teaching? Me?!?
Ahoy! A non-gaming-related post! This one is about Aikido!
Last Friday Sensei was out sick. "So who's teaching the class?" I asked. "You are!" said Marcin. Now, I think that Marcin is slightly better than me at Aikido, but I'm higher ranked. This is because the dojo I'm currently at has very high standards for rank. I'm officially shodan because that's the rank I earned in Kamaishi, but Japan's idea of shodan is lower than Chicago's idea of shodan (oddly enough). So sometimes at this class I feel like a fake shodan. Nevertheless, when sensei is out, it's the senior student's duty to lead class, and that's officially me, so here we go! I was sweating with nervousness, and that's never a good state to practice Aikido in. But despite my misgivings the class went fine and was actually fun. I just picked some random basic techniques and helped the newbies with them, leaving the advanced students to practice on their own since they already know it as least as well as I do.
P.S. despite what Stephen said in his comment on the last post, in all the years I have been doing martial arts and watching people get punched, kicked, and thrown to the ground, I have never once seen a number appear above anyone's head to indicate lost hit points.
A different way to think about hit points
I think we all agree that hit points are a completely unrealistic way to simulate health and wounds. "So he's got 100 hp. If I shoot an arrow through his heart, then even with max damage on a critical he's still going to have 80 hp left. But if I stab him in the toe 100 times, he'll die?" "Yes, and also he'll be at full fighting strength right up until the instance he falls over dead!"
But I'm not going to propose a more realistic wound system. Here's a different idea: Play with hit points, but don't pretend that they have anything to do with health or wounds! They're a completely abstract mechanism that says "when you are at 0 HP, you lose the fight". So why not play them that way? Any hit that does damage is a decisive hit, but it doesn't have to be described as biting flesh. For instance, instead of
"10 damage! You chopped that other samurai in some kind of non-vital location and he bleeds a lot."
you could say "The enemy parries, but the timing of your blow is perfect and his katana is knocked aside. He stumbles backwards and for a split-second is wide open..."
and you knock 10 hit points off his sheet, and later when he gets to zero you can describe the single killing cut.
Zero hit points doesn't even have to be death. Instead of
"You totally chopped that goblin in half!"
it could be that at zero hit points you say something like "The goblin brings his shield up to block, but you hit him so hard that he flies across the room! Getting up, he realizes he is hopelessly outclassed, drops his treasure and runs away." (And then take the goblin out of the game and award treasure and XP).
This is something I thought of when I was running a basic D&D adventure for Aleksa. You don't want a kid's game to be all bloody and deadly. So when she killed like a skeleton or something I would describe it being smashed to bits, but if she got an intelligent monster to zero HP I would describe it like the above.
You can apply it to player characters, too. Then, instead of a Total Party Kill, having all the players at zero HP means that the bad guys have got you disarmed on the ground with their weapons at your throats (possibly without an actual scratch on you) and then give you a chance to surrender and be taken captive. The game becomes a lot less deadly.
It's not even a house "rule" so much as a house "way of applying the rules to the Shared Imaginary Space".
Reply to Googleshng
A huge chunk of your gripe here you realize is just you griping about how you, personally, run games.
Well, yeah! "How [I], personally, run games" is the thing that I am attempting to improve. If any of the discussion here is useful to anyone else, then great. I gripe about rule systems because I honestly think a better set of rules might help me to run games better. (What other use is there for rules?) There's a famous essay called
System Does Matter that I think you should read. After reading through some of the indie games that I have bought recently, I think that they will help me run games better. I won't be able to say for sure until I actually try them out, of course.
Giving the PCs an obvious decent adventure hook is totally reasonable, that's just establishing SOMETHING so the PCs have something better to do than putter around. This works because, generally speaking, the PCs want to have an adventure.
Sure, I agree. The Empty White Void has to be avoided somehow, so the GM should be ready to suggest an adventure hook like this as a starting point in case none of the players have any good ideas. Or possibly several adventure hooks, and be ready to improvise an adventure out of whatever one the PCs are most interested in.
However, I suggest that going by PC motivation is more fun, so players should be encouraged to invent character motivations, and those should override any planned adventure hooks. The adventure hook should be kept as a backup plan. The reason PC motivation or at least PC choice between several adventure hooks is better is because they will result in a game where the PCs care more about what's happening, so they'll put more ideas and energy into it, and everybody will have lots more fun.
Essentially, there's two different types of people who play RPGs, and you can't (nor should you try to) make both happy at once. They step on each other by definition. There's people who play RPGs "to win" (AKA Power Gamers), and there's people who just want to hang out and have a good time.
Your "Power Gamers" are equivalent to what the Forge calls Gamists. The "people who just want to hang out and have a good time" are, I believe, what the Forge calls Simulationists. So, what about Narrativists? Do they exist, and you just have never encountered them? Or you have encountered them, but you lump them in with Simulationists? Or is Narrativism - Simulationism a false distinction?
As I understand it, Narrativists would be people who want something more than just to hang out and have a good time -- they want to express a story through their character. They're not trying "to win" and they're not making uber-powerful characters, but you can recognize them by the fact that they put a lot of extra work into their character's backstory and motivations, and they easily get bored playing adventures that are based on following adventure hooks and going where the GM tells them to go. I have definitely felt like this from time to time in various people's campaigns. I've got a Narrativist streak which has never really gotten a chance to flourish fully because I didn't understand how to make it happen.
At the same time, I've got a Simulationist streak too, expressed in my long-standing desire to Map Out The Entire World On Graph Paper and Invent The Perfect Combat System and basically create a nicely objective and self-contained universe governed by a consistent set of laws that would interact to produce interesting situations without me having to pull any strings. I've never come close to acheiving this but the desire is always there, influencing the way I write adventures, and clashing with any narrative goals I may have. I think I'll do better from now on, while GMing, if I say to myself, "I'm going to run this game Narratively and throw out all the Simulationist stuff", or vice versa, or even "Screw role-playing, I'm going to run an old-school dungeon crawl and make it as Gamist as possible."
All the horrible conflicts you're sweating so much over aren't going to come up in the first place, unless someone is actively being a jerk and bringing them about, and again, that's just a question of "don't play with that person" not something you need to address rules/prep wise.
But the horrible conflicts I'm sweating so much about have come up. Sometime I'm gonna tell you about the "Island of Destiny" adventure that I tried to run once, which was the worst role-playing experience I've ever had. It crashed and burned so hard that it permanently destroyed friendships, and it was all my fault. Even though a few people still wanted to play, I had to stop the adventure halfway through and send everybody home because I was literally too depressed to continue. And it wasn't because anybody there was being a powergamer. I'm gonna do everything I can rules and prep wise to try to stop a disaster like that from ever happening again.
Conflicts between Simulationism and Narrativism can be every bit as bad as conflicts between these two agendas and Gamism! They can ruin games, and it's not because anybody's being a jerk, it's just an agenda clash. But S - N clash can be much much harder to detect than G - N or G - S clash. Everybody knows about the clashes between Gamism and the other agendas because everybody has munchkin player / killer GM horror stories. But somebody who wants to play Simulationist and somebody who wants to play Narrativist can say to each other, "I'm not one of those powergamers, I'm all about the role-playing and the story", and then they don't understand why their priorities keep clashing when they try to role-play together.
This is what the G/N/S theory says, and I believe it because I've seen it in action. I really want to understand narrativism - simulationism conflicts so I can head them off from now on, by choosing an agenda that the majority of the players can support and then removing the things that run counter to that agenda -- hopefully this just means eliminating rules and encouraging or discouraging certain behavior, but in some cases it might require gently telling certain players "I don't think this is the campaign for you."
I gave one example of a narrativism vs. simulationism conflict last time, with the travel speed of spaceships in Babylon 5. Here's another one: A game of "Save the world by following the GM's carefully laid out trail of clues" is likely to appeal to Simulationists but not to Narrativists. Simulationism means enjoying the experience of acting out a genre of literature that you enjoy, such as the save-the-world-by-following-the-trail-of-clues genre. Narrativism means wanting to express a story through your character's actions, and there's very little room to do that in a game where the GM has already planned out the ending. I'm not saying "Simulationists like being railroaded" -- nobody likes being railroaded, as far as I know -- but rather, the level of GM direction that's acceptable is somewhat higher in a Simulationist game than in a Narrativist game.
Here's another: To a Simulationist, "good role-playing" means staying in character, as a character of your chosen background in your chosen setting would "really" behave. There might be a situation where, say, contradicting an authority figure would cause all kinds of trouble for your character, and the character knows that and doesn't want it, so by this definition of good role-playing, the character should keep his mouth shut. "I say nothing", the Simulationist player says. But to a Narrativist player in the same situation, having the character say nothing is really boring, because it's passing up a chance to start some drama! The Narrativist player might say, "I take off my badge and throw it on my boss' desk! The whole damn system is out of line, I shout! I'm through playing by the rules! I'm going to solve this case my own way!". The player knows that this is going to make life much much harder for the character, but so what? It makes the story more interesting, so the player does it.
I have a hunch that a lot of people who would really enjoy Narrativism end up being driven away from the role-playing hobby because all the groups that they can find to play with are oriented towards Gamism or Simulationism.
Response to Ben Lehman ( short )
Ben Lehman said:
I want to point out that your "ways of resolving the paradoxes" are, in fact, totally systematic techniques.
I'm not sure what you mean. Are you using the Lumpley Principle definition of "systematic"? If so, that seems pretty all-inclusive, so what techniques might I consider which would be non-systematic?
Response to SatyrEyes
The GM's job is to put (fair, fun) challenges in the way, sure. But he's not allowed to engineer ways to overcome those challenges? The Death Star is a challenge; the GM can't give it a small thermal exhaust port? Or is he allowed to give it the exhaust port as long as he remains open to other ways of defeating it?
I think it's perfectly great for the GM to create a Death Star with a single exhaust port as its weakness! But if the players come up with another way to defeat it, and that way is cool, then the GM should be ready to throw away the proton-torpedo-down-the-exhaust-port idea in favor of what the players want to do. E.G. if they say "We're going to disguise ourselves as Imperial officers so we can bluff our way up the chain of command until we reach the control room, then hijack the Death Star, fly it to Coruscant, and give the Empire an ultimatum." then the correct reaction from the GM is "Holy crap, awesome!! The rebellion has a locker full of fake imperial uniforms and IDs for just this occasion. By the way, I take it you're OK with Yavin getting blown up if your plan takes too long?"
And guess what, you are not in an Empty White Void, because if you were paying attention, the players just wrote the rest of your adventure for you
. All you have to do now is think of what's going to stand in the way of this plan, and what the players are going to have to roll to overcome those obstacles. And once they've made it to the control room, then you have them encounter a Dark Jedi who scans their minds and recognizes that they are impostors, so what are you going to do now, players? You don't have a solution in mind to this challenge because you just made it up. Maybe you just made up this villian on the spot, but the players don't know that. What you're not
doing is throwing up this obstacle to force the players back towards your exhaust-port idea! The exhaust-port idea is gone and forgotten, and now the adventure is all about beating Darth Uglypants who you just made up 10 seconds ago so the players can get to the control room and hijack the Death Star. You have no idea how this is going to end, and you're just flying by the seat of your pants, but one of the players is going to come up with an even crazier idea and it's going to be awesome. They can't just duel Darth Uglypants because he's already blown their cover to the bridge crew, so maybe they have to use some Jedi mind trick to cloud the minds of the bridge crew, while having a duel of wills with Darth Uglypants, or maybe they make up some BS about how they report directly to the Emporer and they're calling rank on Darth Uglypants, who the bridge crew never liked in the first place because he's always force-choking them. Or maybe the PCs get thrown in the brig to await execution, but they trick the guards and escape or something.
Makes sense. The story is about the characters, not the GM. But is the Blank White Void a problem, or isn't it? It sounds like you're now saying that spending the whole game in the Blank White Void is actually the goal, and taking for granted that a good GM can improvise his way through anything the players might decide to get themselves into.
I'm coming around to the idea that fear of the Empty White Void is worse than the void itself. I should probably write a whole post on the subject of How To Improvise but it's a skill I'm still learning myself. I do know that improvising is not as hard as it sounds as long as the PCs have a definite goal and I have prepared a few interesting NPCs with motivations and personalities of their own. NPCs are the most valuable prep-work you can possibly do because once you have them, it's easy to get them into conflicts against players. They're not tied to a particular time or place so they're much more flexible than planned-out encounters or planned-out events or planned-out locations or any of that. They can just show up to cause trouble and complicate things whenever you need them to. Once you've got your goal and your NPCs and you've given a little bit of general thought to the kind of setting you'd like to have and maybe some ideas for fun twists (that may or may not happen), you can then sort of draw on the players' ideas to provide the rest of your material.
It's all about the NPCs. Adventures where I put prep time into interesting NPCs and little prep time into maps have generally gone pretty well. Adventures where I didn't spend any time making up NPCs but put a lot of work into monsters or locations or objects or variant rules, those have never gone well. So that's my working theory for improvisation right now, anyway.
Are you saying that the GM should avoid posing challenges that have only one solution, because that's railroading?
How about two solutions? Is two enough? Three? Surely the number of solutions is never literally unlimited. Or do the players get to say "we don't like that challenge, give us another" when they don't feel like doing what the challenge requires of them?
No. Like Stephen said, about having to accept the other person's ideas in improv. Just as the GM should accept the players' ideas for solutions, the players should accept the GM's ideas for challenges.
But if the GM accepts the players' ideas for solutions, then the number of possible solutions is not one or two or three. It's not predetermined at all. It's not a choose-your-own-adventure book. The players will choose to try something and it will succeed or fail, and we'll never know how many other things they could have chosen to try in that situation instead. So in a certain sense, the number of solutions is effectively unlimited.
Can the plot ever lead to a place where a PC is forced to choose between standing by while evil triumphs and doing something evil to defeat the greater evil? Some very compelling literary and historical characters have faced and/or grown out of that sort of dilemma, but saying "the only way to defeat the Big Bad is to do something evil" sounds like railroading, doesn't it? Does character-driven collaborative storytelling rule out epic moments like this? Shouldn't characters have to make difficult decisions?
Yes, but they have to be a real decisions! Railroading is saying "You must do this evil thing, because otherwise the greater evil will triumph, which is defined as You Lose, so don't even think about it." Good GMing might drive towards a situation where the player can either do something evil or let the greater evil triumph, but the GM must be ready to allow either one to come to pass. In other words, the GM should be ready to accept it if the player says, "Yeah, actually, you know, I think I will join the Dark Side and accept Darth Vader as my father and rule the galaxy with him, after all." Then the player and the GM can talk about whether that's going to be the end of the story right there -- "And they all lived evilly ever after" -- or if there are some more adventures they could do with Darth Luke, or if perhaps the player should now create a new character who is going to oppose Darth Luke and Darth Vader.
The GM should also be ready for the possibility that the player thinks of something the GM never foresaw, and figures out a way to stop the Greater Evil without resorting to the Lesser Evil. The player sidesteps the dilemma by sheer creativity and pulls off a good ending after all. This is awesome and the last thing the GM should do is say "Ummm... no, that doesn't work" because the GM is still committed to this idea of an insoluble dilemma of Evil. E.G.:
GM: Mwa ha ha! Now you face a Compelling Moral Dilemma because you can either use the power of the One Ring to oppose Sauron, thereby becoming evil yourself, or else allow Sauron to win!
Player: That sucks. How about I find a way to destroy the ring instead, taking away a significant portion of Sauron's power along with it?
Bad GM: Um, no, you can't do that. The ring is 100% indestructable. Now choose your fate!
Good GM: OK, but it can only be destroyed in this one volcano, which is... (thinking quickly) inside Sauron's HQ and guarded by millions of orcs and nazgul and stuff and is all the way over at the extreme lower-right corner of the map! Also the ring will be tempting you every step of the way! Ready to get started?
Reply to Stephen
One of the first rules in improv is that you have to react to what the other person does. Not only that, you have to accept it. It's a concept they call, "Yes, and...", where essentially everything you do should build on what your partner has done.
I think this is an excellent point, about accepting what other people suggest, so I'm going to expand on it a bit.
The idea that the GM creates the world and the players just make choices within the world is, I think, bogus. No matter what system you're playing, everybody, GM and player alike, has ideas for cool stuff they would like to see happen in the scene. But in traditional RPG design the PCs don't have any authority to add or even to suggest objects or NPCs or events; they can only query the GM about the world, and state character actions. In some cases, when players query the GM, they are really expressing a desire to add some element to the scene, but a lot of people don't seem to realize this. For example:
PC: "Is there like a chandeleir here?" (cuz he wants to do that cool thing where he cuts the rope and grabs it and swings on it and then drops the chandeleir on the bad guys' heads)
The GM has not given any thought to whether there's a chandelier or not. Here's how four different GMs might react:
- GM 1: "No."
- GM 2: (Secretly rolls a die behind screen, deciding that even means there is and odd means there isn't)
- GM 3: "Yeah, but the rope is too far away to reach."
- GM 4: "Sure, it's huge and ornate and made of brass and has about 300 candles burning in it. What do you want to do?"
If you are Game Mastering from the perspective of "My written plan for the adventure is authoritative" then you will probably take an approach like GM 1 (if you think "not part of my plan" means it doesn't exist) or like GM 2 (if you think "not part of my plan" means it may or may not exist). GM 1 is boring. GM 2 is slightly more interesting. But they're both thinking like computer game designers. They are not computer game designers. Computer game designers have to guess what the audience will think is cool and then put it in the game and then wait for the game to be released before they get any feedback. GMs have their audience sitting right across the table from them, asking for cool stuff. Why not give it to them?
So, if you are Game Mastering from the perspective of "The players are driving this story, and I'm here to facilitate" then you may take an approach like GM 3 or GM 4. GM 3 is probably thinking "the GM must provide challenge, and the GM must improvise, so I'll improvise and say yes, and I'll provide challenge by making it inaccessible". Unfortunately, in this case, trying to obey both impulses leads to a very boring result. GM 3 comes off like a jerk, because he's saying "Yes, your fun thing exists, but I won't let you have any fun with it."
GM 4 is the one I think we should aim to be like.
This is assuming we're playing a traditional RPG where the GM is the only one with authority. In a lot of indie games from the Forge, there is a structure that explicitly gives players the ability to narrate things into existence at certain times in some kind of structured way, as J. A. Newman was hinting at below. (Hello J.A.Newman! Welcome to my site! I really like your game Shock and one of these days I am going to play it!)
For example, in Trollbabe, the Trollbabe can fail a roll, then check "a convenient geographical feature" off of her character sheet for a re-roll, and say "The bad guy trips over a rock while pursuing me, giving me time to get my sword back and rejoin the battle". The rules gave the player a way to narrate that rock into existence. Doing away with the GM monopoly on power is a very good thing if you want to run a more improvisatory game. But even if you're playing good ol' D&D or whatever, you can still take an approach like GM 4 above, and welcome your players' ideas.
Dogs in the Vineyard has a phrase in the how-to-GM section that I really like: "Say yes or roll dice". The idea is that the GM should never say "no" to a player's idea, whether that's an idea about a character action (traditionally allowed) or an idea about something in the world outside their character (traditionally not allowed). This idea is so important that lumpley says it three times in a row: "Say yes or roll dice. Say yes or roll dice. Say yes or roll dice." If something is important enough to be a Conflict, then you should be rolling dice over it so the players can use game mechanics to tilt the conflict in their favor. And if it's not important enough to be a Conflict, you should just let the players do what they want so that the game can quickly proceed towards the next Conflict!
So I think the idea that Stephen mentioned, about how in improv you're supposed to accept the other peoples' ideas and run with them, is much like the "Say yes or roll dice" prinicple. Accepting the input of other improvers moves the improv scene forward; rejecting it or negating it -- being like the GM who says "Yeah there's a chandeleir but the rope is too far away to reach" -- makes the improv scene stall.
Also, the more you accept players' ideas, the more fun everybody has, and the more the GM gets to be surprised! Stephen said something about the GM being the one who provides surprise, but in truth I have never GMed a game where I was not constantly surprised by the crazy things that players would try to do. I used to think of this as a problem, because the players were trying to derail the adventure into the Blank White Void, but lately I am coming around to the viewpoint that crazy player ideas are exactly the creative input that the GM needs to keep an adventure moving in a fun and interesting direction.
To go back to an earlier thing Stephen said, you can't really run "puzzles" if you are doing "Say yes or roll dice". Or, that is, the GM can set up a situation which looks like a puzzle, but you're going to have to say "yes" to the first thing the players try that remotely makes sense as a solution. Because in player-driven story mode, the GM only provides questions, not answers. Or maybe you could actually have some kind of game-mechanic for this situation? Player suggests an idea, then rolls some dice and adds the character's Intelligence, and if it's high enough, then the idea that the player just suggested, no matter how nutty, is in fact the right solution to the puzzle. Then other players can suggest different solutions until one This is just a half-baked idea but I think something like that would be quite appropriate for a certain style of game. The players still have to exercise creativity and propose solutions, just like with GM controlled puzzles, but it's the dice and not the GM who say yes or no.
On the other hand, I really like it when I solve puzzles as a player, by logical steps, and not have my character solve it by die-rolling. So you do lose something by playing in player-driven story mode. But maybe that's OK. Maybe we should leave player-solves-puzzle-by-logic for the dungeon crawls and the computer games.
Yay RPGs yay!
Gonna respond to your comments now on my previous posts about RPGs. I'll break it up into one post per commenter (so there will be one where I reply to all Googleshng's comments, one where I reply to all SatyrEyes's comments, etc.) All this discussion has been really thought-provoking and gotten me really jazzed to do some actual role-playing and turn all this theory into practice.
So who else wants to be in a game of Polaris with me and Eric?
Also, this weekend I'm going to a mini-con/meetup of role-players from The Forge which just so happens to be happening in Chicago. Gonna play weird indie RPGs all weekend, some of which are still in playtesting. Huzzah!
I seem to have left a comment which broke my own blog
That was dumb. I need to fix the scripts to force termination of unclosed html tags in comments. Duh. And I can't even fix it until I get home since there's no "edit comment" button. So enjoy the broken HTML until then.
DM of the Rings
Kathy, an old friend from my JET program days, just sent me a link to a photo-webcomic called "DM of the Rings". It's much the same idea as the post that I wrote a few days ago (which I forgot to put a title on, d'oh) where Lord of the Rings is reinterpreted as an RPG with a horrible railroading DM and bored players wondering where all the loot is hidden. Illustrated with movie stills. It's good stuff, worth reading from the beginning of the archives (this will only take one sitting) and it's especially interesting to look at in light of all the discussion that we've been having here recently.
The part I find disturbing is that, judging by the comments below the comics, the author seems to be taking the DM's side and blaming everything on the players for being "powergamers". Whereas I read the comic and see the opposite problem -- this guy shouldn't be DMing, he should maybe try writing and directing community theater, since he's all but handing the players a script. No wonder they're bored!
Alright, in order to go any further with this RPG discussion I need to use all kinds of crazy The Forge lingo so let me explain The Forge.
The Forge is a discussion forum for people who make up their own RPGs. The level of discussion that goes on there is unbelievably astute. It's like the MIT of RPG design or something. I originally discovered them at the end of a long series of links I followed that began with a google search for the phrase "Exalted sucks". (heh).
I had had all these thoughts about what was wrong with the traditional assumptions of role-playing and what we might do about them, and then when I found The Forge... well, let me give you an analogy: imagine I had just come up with the idea that raw antelope meat might taste better and be easier to chew if we, like, charred it over a fire first, if only we could figure out how to start a fire, and so I was thinking about how I might try to explain this concept to other members of my tribe so we could try it out, and while I was thinking this I happened to wander across a stream and through a line of bushes and suddenly found myself on a city street featuring Mexican, Italian, and Chinese restauruants. That's what I felt like when I started reading The Forge, OK?
There is a lot of really useful terminology that has come out of Forge discussion. A concept that immediately clicked with me, and explained a lot of things, was the idea that there seem to be three Creative Agendas. They are like three different flavors of Fun, or three styles of play, or like three different answers to the question, "What makes RPGs fun for you?"
Those links go to in-depth articles by Ron Edwards on each of the three agendas, (and here is the inex of many more articles) but I'd like to present my own take on each of the three, so here goes:
Gamism: An RPG is like a more complicated and more open-ended board game or video game. We're here to face challenges and defeat them. Our chracters' powers are the tools we use to do that. If we're not competing against each other or the GM, we need to at least be facing a challenging adventure where we could succeed or fail based on the tactical choices we make. Challenges don't have to be combat, they could be puzzles or whatever, but they should be tough and fair and well-defined and never boring. Character creation and combat should have lots of choices so that we have room for strategy. The adventure doesn't particularly have to have a good story or be particularly realistic as long as it puts our characters to the test and gives us a chance to show off our skills as players. Parts of the adventure that aren't challenging should be as short as possible. The worst kind of GM is one who puts in lots of boring scenes that have no danger and require no tactical thought, or else the kind of GM who unfairly decides that our carefully considered tactical choices don't make a difference.
Narratavism: We're here to tell a story that focuses on our characters. The story should be more meaningful than just killing monsters to save the world; it should have some depth to it. It's best if our characters are constantly facing choices, tough choices, ones that challenge their deeply-held beliefs and make us as players really think about moral or social or philosophical issues, so the game ends up meaning something. Our characters should change over the course of the story, not just in becoming more powerful, but in that they have to reconsider what kind of people they want to be. Physical violence is optional but there should be plenty of drama and conflict. We don't want a rule set that will bog things down too much because we want the game to move from one dramatic scene quickly to the next. Railroading is the greatest evil because it deprives our choices of meaning if the GM already has an ending planned out.
Simulationism: We're here to construct an imaginary world and then explore it and play in it and see what happens. If our characters face challenges and moral dilemmas and whatever as a result of exploring the world that's cool, but the main point is to create an experience with lots of detail and believability so our imaginations are fully engaged. Our imaginary world might be based on a setting from a novel that we all really like, or a genre of TV show that we all really like, or something like that so we can have an immersive experience of being in that kind of setting. Our characters are a medium for exploration and experience so they must be believable as part of that world. Good role-playing means having the characters speak and act as that kind of person in that kind of situation really would speak and act. The GM's job is to create and present this world to us. We'll follow the GM's story wherever it goes, but it's important that our idea of the world isn't violated, so the GM and the rule set should make things happen that are appropriate and believable given the setting and genre. If the rules have to be really numerically detailed and nitty-gritty in order to generate realistic results, that's fine with us.
Important points to derive from this theory:
1. None of these agendas is inherently superior or inferior. I'm looking at them all right now and all three of those sound pretty fun to me! If I had infinite free time I would like to be in one campaign of each style.
2. Unfortunately, it's very hard -- nearly impossible -- to do all three flavors of fun at once. They tend to conflict. At least, the kind of decisions you would make to maximize one agenda tend to hamper other agendas. A game where the agendas are conflicting so bad that they make it un-fun is said to be "Incoherent" in Forge jargon. So you might have more fun if you pick an agenda to focus on.
3. However, the three agendas do not mean that there are three kinds of people. It's true that some people have a preference for one of the three over others, but I think that most people can find enjoyment in any of the three if they know what they're getting into and give it a fair chance. If you start using them as labels for people, then it turns into "Joe, you're a Gamist, we don't like people like you, so go away." G/N/S theory should be a tool to improve the focus of game sessions, not a way to divide or ostracize people. Having said that, I will sometimes say "Simulationist", "Gamist", or "Narrativist" -- please read this as a shorthand way of saying "Person who, at this moment, wants to play in a Simulationist/Gamist/Narrativist way".
4. Most ugly interpersonal conflicts that happen during RPG sessions can be understood in terms of one player wanting one flavor of fun while others in the group want a conflicting flavor. Understanding this is the first step to preventing or resolving such conflicts. You know that classic gripe about the "Powergamer"? The guy whose competitive attitude "ruins" a game that's supposed to be about just exploring the world and getting into character and seeing what happens? It's not that the powergamer is evil, it's that he really wants to play a Gamist game and the other players are trying to play a Simulationist game. There's another classic gripe about that guy who keeps bogging the game down with complaints about how the rules for weapon ranges are not realistic, you know? He is clearly wanting to play a Simulationist game while the other people are trying to do Gamism or Narrativism.
5. There are three agendas. Three! The number three is important. Just about every role-player I know is aware of a difference between "powergamers" or "munchkins" (bad) on one side and "role-players" or "story-focused" people (good) on the other side. Sometimes snarkily summed up as "role-playing vs. roll-playing". If there are only two things, then they are points on a line, and if you move away from "powergamer" you must be moving towards "role-player". But if there are three things, then moving away from Gamist doesn't neccessarily take you towards Narrativism. If you want Narrativism you have to aim for it specifically.
6. The conflict between Narrativism and Simulationism can be just as bad as the conflict between either one of these and Gamism. But it can sneak up you because both the Narrativist and the Simulationist will say "I'm not one of those wretched powergamers, I really care about role-playing and about the story." So they think they'll get along, but then they start trying to play together and discover they mean very different things by "role-playing" and "story". Here's an example of Simulationism and Narrativism clashing: the guy who wrote "Babylon 5", when fans asked him how fast the ships can go, he answered, "They travel at the speed of plot". i.e. they always arrive just in the nick of time or just slightly too late, whatever will make the story the most interesting. That's a very Narrativist attitude. A hard-core Simulationist might prefer to know exactly how fast they go, exactly how far all the important star systems are from each other, then calculate travel times from that, and if that means a ship doesn't arrive in time to save the day, then too bad, that's the rules.
7. For each of gamism, narratavism, and simulationism, there are some rules that are very good for supporting it and other rules that get in the way of it. But, most published RPGs are horrible mish-moshes of rules that support and get in the way of all three agendas, either because they were trying to please everybody or because they had no clear agenda in mind. They're incoherent. Therefore, to achieve the style of play you want, you will probably have to throw out large chunks of rules from your game system, or replace them with house rules, or write your own set of rules from scratch.
8. GURPS is just about the perfect system for playing Simulationist. D&D 3rd edition, if you do a by-the-book dungeon crawl, is just about the perfect system for playing Gamist. But what do you play if you want to play Narrativist? Just about every mainstream published RPG is really bad at doing Narrativism, because they are full of assumptions like "The GM controls the story" and "The characters wander around in a party solving adventures", and also they are full of very gamist or simulationist rules such as movement speeds, strength stats, hit points, and so on. Therefore, there are lots of role-players who have never actually had a chance to play Narrativism, and don't know that it exists. They might have played plot-heavy Simulationism and thought that was the end-all and be-all of story-focused games, but plot-heavy Simulationism is a completely different animal from Narrativism.
9. The indie RPGs invented by the people from The Forge are mostly aimed strongly towards Narrativism in an attempt to correct this gap. Collectively they have discovered a certain very non-simulationist, non-wargamey style of rule systems which do a good job of encouraging Narrativism.
10. I notice a weird analogy between G/N/S and the Timmy, Johnny, and Spike that the Magic: the Gathering designers talk about. I mean, from a role-player's perspective, Magic the Gathering is way far out on the Gamist end of things, beyond the munchkiniest of munchkin role-players, but still, hear me out. You have to peel away the superficial layers and ask, why does this person play this game? The Gamist doesn't just like rolling dice and killing monsters. The Narrativist doesn't just like being in character and talking to NPCs. The Simulationist doesn't just like complicated rules. In the same way, Timmy doesn't just like big creatures: he plays to "experience something" (Simulationism). Johnny doesn't just like wacky combo decks: he plays to "express something" (Narrativism). And Spike doesn't just like tournament play: he plays to "prove something" (Gamism).
Next post, I will respond to more of your comments, using this terminology.
Are you role-playing wrong?
Perhaps you have heard it said that "there is no right or wrong way to role-play"?
Next time you are role-playing look around at the people you are playing with. Also, examine your own soul.
Is there anybody there not having fun?
If so, you are role-playing wrong!
If everybody is having fun, then you are role-playing right. End of story. There's my thought for the day.
(This is one reason I don't like play-by-chat or play-by-email games. It's nearly impossible to judge whether the other people are having fun or not.)
Why Lord of the Rings is Not a Good Model for your RPG Campaign
(Inspired by SatyrEyes' comment about how hard it would be to run Lord of the Rings as an RPG story without railroading.)
Player: I'm gonna be Frodo!
GM: OK. You're in the Shire. Bilbo just disappeared at his 111th birthday party, then left the Ring to you and set out for Rivendell. What do you do?
Frodo: I hang out in the shire for six months. La la la, I love being a hobbit.
GM: Um, OK... Gandalf appears and throws your ring into the fire. He tells you the Epic Backstory of Sauron and Mordor and the Rings of Power and how this is the One Ring and it's the most evil thing in the world and everybody is in great peril.
Frodo: Wow, Gandalf, that's scary!
GM: Aren't you going to do anything about it?
Frodo: No way, I'm a hobbit and hobbits hate adventures, remember? I hang out in the shire for another six months.
GM: Grrrr... Um, OK, some Black Riders come asking around for Frodo Baggins. They ransack your house while you're out. Now are you going to do something?
Frodo: Uh-oh, I guess so. I'll leave home and go wandering around in Farmer What's-his-name's field with Sam and Merry and Pippin. Yay, second breakfast! Yay, mushrooms!
GM: BLACK RIDERS ARE NOW MERCILESSLY PURSUING YOU ACROSS THE SHIRE WITH MURDEROUS INTENT!
Frodo: Yipes! We'll run away and cross the Brandywine. Oh look, elves!
GM: How bout you all head for Rivendell?
Frodo: OK, fine.
(Some actual adventurey stuff starts happening. Then they meet Strider)
Player 2: I'm Strider! I'm a brooding loner antihero! I'm actually the heir of Gondor but I'm in exile as a Ranger of the North but someday I will claim my kingdom! I've got the shards of Narsil, the sword of Isildur, which I want to re-forge to fulfill my destiny! Also I have a crush on this elven princess but love between elves and men is all tragic and stuff! Just look how many plot hooks my character has built in!
GM: That's nice, Strider. This party needs a fighter, so why don't you escort the hobbits to Rivendell?
Strider: But what about my kingdom and my elven princess??
GM: We're not splitting up the party. Go to Rivendell.
(Some more adventury stuff happens. The book actually starts getting good. Finally they get to Rivendell.)
Frodo: Yay Rivendell! Yay Elves! Yay Bilbo! Yay Gandalf! I'm done with my adventure now, I'm gonna hang out here forever and ever.
GM: Um... no... there is a Council of Elrond and everybody decides that the Ring must be brought to Mordor and destroyed! Representatives of all the Free Peoples are going to form a Fellowship of the Ring, and they will number nine to oppose the Black Riders, and you will sneak all the way to the enemy's stronghold in order to save all of Middle Earth from destruction! Now, who will be the Ringbearer?
Frodo: Um, is it OK if I go back to the Shire now?
Frodo: Uh... OK... I'll be the ringbearer I guess.
Strider: Can I have a dramatic scene where I confront Elrond about whether or not I can marry Arwen?
Strider: Uh... OK... I guess I'll join the fellowship then. We will be going near Gondor, right?
(And so it goes.)
All of this sounds very, very familiar from dysfunctional RPG groups I've played in. Frodo is the player with no interest in the adventure because his character has no motivation. Strider is the player with no interest in the adventure because his character's motivation has nothing to do with what the GM has planned. JRR Tolkien is the railroading GM who drags both of those PCs kicking and screaming into his predetermined plotline. This all ends up working out OK for a book, but it is not what you want in your RPG. Here's a breakdown.
1. Frodo is a character with no motivation, at the start of the book. He's the Reluctant Hero type. The Reluctant Hero is not the kind of character to make if you want to play a character-driven story RPG!! By playing a character like this, you are basically refusing to contribute any of your own ideas to the story. You are forcing the GM to reach out and railroad you.
2. "Save the World" is not a good motivation to start with. First of all, no normal person actually has that as a motivation. Even epic fantasy characters don't start out the book thinking, "I really want to save the world!". Epic fantasy characters who do end up saving the world start out with some other goal, then learn about the Dire Threat to the World, then get "Save the World" as a goal. Secondly, "Save the World" is completely reactive. It's saying "GM, please create a Dire Threat to the World so I can oppose it." It's saying, "I'm going to sit around and do nothing until the GM reaches out and railroads me."
3. Aragorn, now there's a motivated character. There's a player who says "I want to go on a quest to reclaim my birthright as King of Gondor and marry Arwen the elven princess." That would be a fine start for a character-motivation-based campaign! The GM would just keep throwing obstacles in Aragorn's way: monsters and hostile geography, the crazy Steward of Gondor, Elrond's opposition to elf-human marriage, this warrior woman from Rohan who seriously tempts him away from Arwen, etc. etc. The focus would be very different since all of that save-the-world stuff would be off to the side somewhere. At the moment this sounds to me like a solo campaign, since it's hard to think of who the other PCs would be.
4. If everybody wants to play "Save the World", that's fine! I've been advocating in this series of posts for a character-driven style of play, but that doesn't mean everybody wants to do that. If you do want to play Save the World, I would recommend that you get this clear with everybody before creating characters and adventures. And when people were creating their characters, they would all put down the same motivation: "Save the World!". And then you skip all the pre-Rivendell stuff, and go straight to the formation of the Fellowship, or its equivalent in your world: the first scene is the one where the PCs assemble, hear about the Dire Threat to the World, and swear a pact to defeat it no matter the cost. All else is irrelevant.
5. A player who wants to play "Reclaim my birthright as King of Gondor and marry Arwen the elven princess" is not going to be happy if the rest of the group wants to play "Save the World".
Holy moly, that's a lot of comments to respond to! Thanks a lot for your input, everybody. I'll do a few in this post and a few more later.
What about having little flexible adventure modules that can be adapted to the specifics of whatever situation the players find themselves in?
I've tried that. For a while I thought it might be my salvation. Unfortunately, it's very very hard to make a mini-adventure module both 1. specific enough to be interesting on its own and 2. flexible enough to be hooked into the story anywhere. My "mini-adventure modules" started out as index cards with specific encounters and rules on them but they have evolved into more like Vague Ideas for Cool Scenes that I will introduce and flesh out if I see a chance for them. Think up a lot of ideas but then be prepared to throw them away and improvise like crazy; this seems to be an effective strategy.
However, maybe the idea of flexible adventure modules on index cards could be adapted to be the main basis for adventure creation? Maybe it's worth a try to make up a bunch of index cards with discrete aspects on them, like villians, settings, conflicts, items, plot points, etc. and then maybe when the GM is stumped for an idea he can grab a few and try to put them together? Or maybe you could make a set of cards like that into the main basis for some kind of improvisatory game, where the cards get distributed to all players and then anybody can play a card to introduce some idea to the scene? (This is a very half-formed thought and it's probably been done before anyway.)
The thing that always confuses me is this whole "playing the hero" aspect. This whole "you are special. Now here is something special for you to do." Which you kinda have to do if you want adventure. Which is kinda the basis of all these rpg games, right? Maybe that's why I've never really gotten into them--I like the power and action inherent in daily life (as opposed to direct missions of killing monsters and saving the world).
Well, D&D evolved out of historical medieval wargaming as influenced by Lord of the Rings, and then every other RPG evolved out of D&D, so they have this long history of being based around the medieval-battle or knightly-quest archetype and having highly detailed rules for combat and rather vague rules for everything else. Of course, that means they attracted a certain type of fan, and that type of fan then wanted more of the same, so it's been hard for RPGs to break this mold.
Lately I've been reading about some recently-created "indie" RPGs that do away with the "heroic quest" thing and the wargame-inspired assumptions. There's a game I think you might actually really like, Sushu, called Prime-Time Adventures. The premise is that all the players create a TV series (no, I mean a good TV series) and then each game session is an episode of it. The content of the TV series is completely up to your group; in other words it could be all epic like Escaflowne or it could just as well be all personal like Honey and Clover. Or Firefly or West Wing. The rules don't address things like "how much damage do I do with a sword" because that would be too specific and largely irrelevant. Instead the rules are all about things like "how to decide what a character's Issues are", "how to decide which character's Issues the next episode is going to focus on", "how to frame a scene that's going to bring the character's Issues into conflict" and "How to resolve a conflict and find out what it means for the character's Issues". And when your character does really cool stuff the other players can give your character Fan Mail which you can spend for perks later on. I haven't actually played this yet but it's something I'd like to give a try sometime.
Googleshng: Geez, dude, you wrote a book. I'm just going to have to pick a couple of points to respond to for now.
You bring up the notion of PCs not all being together in a group. Get that idea completely out of your head right now, and never let it back in. It flat out does not work to have PCs scattered all over, ever, for basic logistical reasons.
That's a little harsh! How about this: It really sucks to have to leave any of the players with nothing to do for any length of time. That's a statement I'm sure we can both agree on, vehemently! And if you let the party split up without thinking about it, some of the players are going to have nothing to do, and it will suck. But guess what, I've been in games where the party was all together and I didn't have anything to do for long periods of time! This especially happens if it's a large party and some of the other characters have skills more appropriate to the scene or are more strongly connected to what's happening in this part of the story -- I'm twiddling my thumbs for a while. It's lame.
Conversely, you can solve the problem of a split party if you make sure that the player has something to do even if his character isn't in the scene. For that to be possible, though, you have to allow players to play more than one character.
I just bought this game called Polaris, which I'm itching to try out because it sounds awesome. It's intended for exactly four players whose protagonists are quite often going to be geographically separated. (A couple weeks ago I met Ben Lehman, the guy who created this game, and I know he's been reading this site, so I must try to get this description right.)
You're supposed to rotate scenes between protagonists. The player who controls the protagonist of a given scene is the character's "Heart". One of the other players has been assigned to be that protagonist's "Mistaken" ("Mistaken" is Polaris' name for demons because demons come from this giant smoking crater known as "The Mistake" in what used to be the center of a glorious civilization). So, the Mistaken's job is to make life as hard as possible for the protagonist, not just controlling the obvious enemies but also trying to lure the protagonist into corruption and despair. The other two players are the "Full Moon" and "New Moon" for this protagonist, and they control all the neutral or friendly NPCs and background characters as well as acting as referees on the Heart/Mistaken conflicts. When the scene's over you switch to a different protagonist and then all the players are in different roles.
(And notice there's no GM. And barely any die-rolling; instead, conflicts are settled by a formal, ritualized negotiation process. And the game is a tragedy, in that it's a given that your protagonists are all going to die or be corrupted and the demons are going to win in the end. And the setting is insanely cool, like some kind of surreal and creepy 19th-century poem about the doom of a lost race that once lived at the North Pole. I really really wanna play this as soon as I can scrounge up three people.)
Simplifying the rules incidently, does not help you with this sort of thing. At all. Simplifying the mechanics too much starts severely limitting the options players have to do interesting things.
Only if you buy into the idea that players' choices are limited to those things that are explicitly spelled out in the game mechanics. That's Wizards-of-the-Coast's approach currently, for sure, because that's how they continue selling sourcebooks: "Buy Book Of Feats And Prestige Classes Volume 81 for even more cool player options!" But that's not the only way to do things. The other approach is that players' actions should be limited only by what makes sense in the game world. The vast majority of actions can have their outcomes adjucated by simple common sense with a touch of dramatic flair; the rule system can be something that you only refer to only when it's time to make a roll and resolve a conflict. If you think about it, you'll recognize that this is what we usually do in practice no matter what rules system we're supposedly using. If you let your imagination handle the "physics engine" of the game world, it takes a lot of pressure of the rules. The rules can then be made much lighter and simpler and more generic which is a benefit if you're trying to run a game in a fast-paced and flexible way.
Example: suppose I'm playing a game where there is a single "fight" skill, and fights are settled by an opposed roll of my Fight skill vs the other guy's Fight skill, and there's a general rule that players get bonuses to rolls if their descriptions of character actions show a superior grasp of tactics. Even though there's no specific "backstab" rule, I can play my character as a backstabby kind of dude, and describe how I lurk in the shadows and wait for just the right moment lunge out and shove my dirk through a chink in the enemy's armor into his right kidney. If everybody agrees that's an appropriate tactic for the situation, I get my bonus. That one rule basically replaces any number of tables of numbers for specialized combat maneuvers, and it can be applied just as well to skill rolls other than Fight. It would not be appropriate for a crunchy tactical wargame style of play, but it would be very well-suited for a more fast-paced narrative game.
The only thing I can think of that I didn't see stressed in the article is the element of puzzles. The only kind of D&D I ever really played when I was like, 12, was the dungeon crawl. And that's because I played it one on one with my dad. We'd GM back and forth, making dungeons for each other. One of the things (for me) that made it fun was figuring out the puzzles inherent in the dungeon. So having secret plots or conspiracies or secret mystical powers is a good thing. I'm not sure that you disagree with that, I just didn't pick it up from the post.
Oh, don't get me wrong, I love puzzles, both inventing them and trying to solve them. I've already said I love dungeon crawls, and dungeon crawls are best with lots of puzzles in them. But puzzles do require a high level of GM control over the situation because the point of a puzzle is to figure out the single solution that the GM has planned, and so the GM has to be able to rule out a whole range of other possible solutions. So you're exactly right, Stephen, in saying that it's hard to see how puzzles would exist in the kind of character-driven-story role-playing that I'm advocating here.
I'm not sure that's a problem, though. I'm not trying to say that there's One True Way to Role Play. I can enjoy a game like chess and a game like poker and a game like foosball, but that doesn't mean I have to try to play all three of them at the same time! I would be quite happy to be in one RPG campaign that was pure puzzle-filled dungeon-crawling and also another campaign that was pure character-driven story. Two completely different games, both fun, but incompatible. I'll talk more about this when I get into "GNS" theory in my next post.
Sounds nice, but I'm a little unclear on the details. The plot should be determined by the PCs' motivations -- great. I agree. How is this manifested in play? Do the players say to the GM before the game, "This adventure is going to be about how we avenge our friends who were burninated by Trogdor?" That would be refreshingly straightforward, but it wouldn't resolve the paradoxes. "This adventure is going to be about how we save Middle-Earth!"
You raise some very good points. Sushu already wrote a good response to this (see below), but here's my take on it.
"We want to avenge our friends who were burninated by Trogdor" is an excellent start for a character-motivation-based game. It's a clear goal, and the GM can think of lots of obstacles to put in the way before Trogdor finally shows up. There's even a theme, sort of, which is Vengeance, so if the GM wants to get really ambitious he can put in some situations and dilemmas which are going to force the players to do some serious thinking about the morality of vengeance.
"We want to save Middle-Earth" is not a start for a character-motivation-based game, because it's purely reactive -- saving Middle-Earth can't happen unless the GM creates a threat to Middle-Earth, so saying "We want to save Middle Earth" is basically saying "GM, please invent a plot for us, we'll follow along with it." That's OK! That is a totally legitimate way to play, if everybody agrees to it! It's not railroading if it's what the players want! But "save the world" is not a character motivation.
"We wanted to save Middle-Earth by going to Aman and frolicking with comely elven wenches!"
Then the goal was not "Save Middle-Earth", the goal was "Go to Aman and frolick with comely elven wenches." Now we're getting somewhere! That's something the players can pursue, and the GM can think of lots of obstacles to put in the way.
"We head south towards Minhiriath."
"What?!? I don't know what it's like in Minhiriath! I am in the Empty White Void!"
Here's what I'm saying you should do for a character-motivation-based game: If the players go to Minhiriath, they go to Minhiriath. If the GM doesn't know what it's like there, he or she just has to make something up. If the game is mainly about travelling, put challenges on the way to Minhiriath. If the game is mainly about Mustering the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth to Stand Against Sauron, then the GM should say "OK, you're in Minhiriath, and here's what the political situation is like there..."
"Then what are we supposed to do?"
"I hear the East-West Road towards Bree is nice this time of year..."
This indicates that the GM has already planned out a bunch of stuff to happen on the East-West Road, and he's not going to let the players do anything except follow the East-West Road into his planned-out stuff. This is exactly what I'm saying you shouldn't do if you're playing a character-motivation-based game. If you're going to plan anything out, don't tie it down to a location! Better yet, don't plan anything out: think of some cool ideas for challenges, but be able to adapt those ideas on the fly to what the characters are actually doing.
...And so on and so on and so on. Do you see where I'm going with this? Having the PCs' motivations dictate where the plot is going is a great start, but the Central Paradox happens whenever the players and the GM are inclined to go off in different directions
If the players and the GM are inclined to go off in different directions, the players' decisions take priority, that's what I'm saying. Suck it up, GM. You're not in charge of the story anymore.
and agreeing on what happens in the last scene doesn't always ensure that the GM and the players are otherwise reading the same script. What would you change about the above dialogue?
Don't agree to what happens in the last scene. Agree on how to begin the first scene. Then play out the first scene and see what happens. Then figure out what the second scene should be. There is no script. The ending has not yet been written.
More responses to come...
It seems that your 3 paradoxes are really just one paradox of "GM-led plot-centered linear novel" vs "player-driven character-centered collaborative storytelling", which is perhaps a structural flaw to traditional rpgs?
BINGO! This is exactly what I was going to say next, but Sushu said it first (and she claims to be the newbie here!) Have a cookie, Sushu!
Yes. When I started out writing these I was thinking of three unrelated paradoxes but the more I dug into them the more I realized that they can all be summed up as the problem of Big Design Up-Front.
Big Design Up-Front is a programmer term that refers to a certain type of software design. Back in the bad old days of large corporate mainframes this was how people assumed you should write software: first plot everything out on paper with diagrams and flowcharts and specify every behavior down to an itty-bitty level. And only with that done would you then start writing code. And you would estimate ahead of time how long each phase of the code-writing was going to take in order to estimate when the project would be done. And whole corporate structures and hierarchies and business plans would then be written around this pile of flowcharts and this pile of time estimates. And inevitably, some programmer who was working on the implementation would discover something that nobody had thought of and that made the entire plan invalid, and it would totally suck because the organization didn't have any way to deal with this except going back to the beginning and starting over, or else ignoring the problem and trying to force the software to fit the plan anyway.
So these days, Big Design Up-Front is frowned upon, and everybody talks about "Agile" development processes, ranging from simple philosophies like "Monkey up a prototype first to make sure the basic idea is sound" all the way to something like this "Extreme Programming" or "XP" methodology which is practically a cult.
So, there's a pretty good analogy here, in that if we want RPGs to be more responsive to what the players actually want to do, we need to have a more agile process of creating adventures instead of this Big Design Up-Front where the GM plans everything out. In software development, the way you get agility is partly a matter of how the design is done (analagous to adventure and character creation) and it's also partly a matter of the division of authority between management and programmers (analgous to division of authority between GM and players) and it's partly a matter of using a programming language that allows you to make changes more rapidly, i.e. Python and not C (analagous to using a lighter, less number-crunchy set of rules).
Sushu also wrote:
Perhaps it needs to be a pre-game collaborative planning stage where everyone gets a feel for the plot, characters, etc. Then go home and deal with all the stats and numbers, and then meet a second time to play?
That's a good start, but I want to go further than that! I want the design to be constantly evolving based on discoveries and decisions made in play, not all just fixed at the beggining. In fact, I want the creative work of building the world and building the characters to become part of the game as much as possible, instead of something done in preparation for the game.
I want players to actually decide the direction of the story through their character's motivations, and have the GM respond to introduce challenges and events that will move the story in that direction.
I want a rule set where it takes 30 seconds to make up all the stats I need to run an NPC. In general, the fewer stats it takes to describe something in game, the less I have to prepare things ahead of time, and the more I can make them up as they're needed.
Here's what I want to try to do to solve these paradoxes. I'm not saying this is the only way to solve them, but this is the plan I'm going to be working from the next time I try to run a game.
Railroading: The GM's explicitly laid-out responsibility is to put challenging, but fair, obstacles in the way of whatever characters are trying to do. The GM is not allowed to plan out what will happen, but instead must only provide dilemmas and enemies and situations that he hopes will capture the players' enthusiasm and thereby turn into dramatic scenes. In other words, the GM is required to create questions and forbidden from creating answers.
The Empty White Void: Will not happen because the player character has a defined goal, which immediately gives him or her a direction to move in, and the GM's obstacles will get in the way, and scenes will be created from there, and then new scenes will proceed out of previous scenes. Make sure characters are mechanically rewarded for pursuing and achieving their characters' goals.
Fudging: Use a rule-set that doesn't randomly kill characters for getting a bad roll. (There are some rule-sets I've seen where a character can never die unless the player chooses to let it happen.) Use a rule-set that gives me some leeway to interpret results so no roll is going to force an unintuitive or anti-dramatic result into the game. Before I pick up any dice, get clear on what will happen if the roll succeeds and what will happen if the roll fails and make sure that both of them are acceptable directions for the story to move in. Use a rule-set that allows players to spend some resource to re-roll rolls that they don't like, so that if anybody feels a desperate need to fudge, it becomes a fair part of the game rules.
Character Motivations: Allow no character to be created without a strong motivation. Make this the very center of character creation. The GM's explicitly laid-out responsibility is to respond to these motivations with obstacles and dilemmas and enemies. Character motivations ARE the plot.
Preparation Time: Use a rule-set that facilitates on-the-fly creation of NPCs and scenes and other game elements so the GM can stay one step ahead of whichever direction the players are moving in. Use a rule-set that allows characters to start as just a simple description, a motivation, a background, and a bit of personality, and then to be fleshed out as-neccessary as the game proceeds. Allow and encourage players to contribute to the world-building and the setting of scenes, to take some of the burden off the GM's creativity AND to ensure that the setting and scenario are interesting to all players.
What do we DO in this game: To be decided and agreed upon by negotiation between all players before any character or scenario creation is allowed to begin.
The Party Line: Whether the characters are in a party or not is decided as part of the what-do-we-DO-in-this-game negotiation. If they are, pre-existing relationships, reasons for adventuring together and shared goals are to be determined as part of this negotiation too. Characters may have personal goals that diverge from the party goal; if so, there must be an agreed-upon and fair way to divide time up between the main whole-party plot and a character's personal side-quest, so that all players get to have equal time in the spotlight. Use a rule-set that fairly mediates intra-party conflict but make sure that the conflict is really between the characters and not between the players. If characters become separated geographically, then when playing a scene where one PC is present and others are not, consider allowing the other players to temporarily take on the roles of other minor characters helping or opposing the viewpoint PC, so all players have something to do.
This concludes my article about role-playing paradoxes. Which I originally thought was going to be short, silly me! Coming up next: I respond to all the very interesting comments that you guys have left me, and then I talk about all sorts of cool indie RPGs that I've found out about through The Forge.
I want to respond to a bunch of points that Googleshng, SatyrEyes, Stephen, and Sushu made, but first I need to finish my original train of thought.
The first two paradoxes were things that make my life hard as a GM. This third paradox is one that makes my life hard as a PC. No, not hard. Boring. Stated simply:
I made up a cool backstory and motivation for my character. What are the chances that I'll get to use any of it in play?
In my experience, the chances are very, very low. Actually, I'm thinking back to every RPG I've had a character in which was something other than hack-and-slash, and I'm counting four or five where I put a bit of effort into motivation and backstory and I'm counting exactly zero where that motivation and backstory got to play a part in the cmapign.
This makes me sad! Why does this make me sad? Because good stories are stories about their main characters, and main characters in good stories are what the story is about. That's a circular definition but this point is so basic that I don't know how to explain it any better. In a good story, the main characters' motivations are the PRIMARY DRIVING FORCE of the story. Character's backstory explains how they got their motivations. The plot is all about the things that get in the way of the character's motivations. The climax is when you find out whether the character will succeed or fail in satisfying this motivation.
So far so good? Are we in agreement on this point? I think that's a universal rule of storytelling across all genres and settings and media. And yet: typical RPG sessions manage to ignore and violate it on a regular basis! What's going on here?
So in this post, I'm going to try to figure out why it happens that player-created character backstories and motivations rarely play a part in typical RPG campaigns.
The basic problem, as I see it, is the assumption in most RPGs is that All Plot Flows From The GM, because the GM has authority over everything in the world except the characters. So the GM makes up a plot -- in isolation -- and the characters make up characters, motivations optional -- in isolation -- and when the two come together, the GM's plot always wins. If you're really lucky your GM will even be nice enough to give you a chance to act on your motivation once in a while, but it will mostly be as a hook to make you participate in his predetermined plotline.
And it's not that the GM is being evil or anything. Every GM I know is really happy when a player comes up with a backstory and a motivation. (It means the player is invested in the game and probably not a munchkin.) Yet by the time the GM finds out about the results of the player's creativity, it's too late to incorporate it, because the campaign is already planned and the adventure is already written and the character has to be shoehorned into it. I think with most GMs, myself included, we really want to incorporate these player-created ideas, we just don't know how.
So to get at the root cause, we need to ask, why do adventures and characters get created in isolation? Why is there this lack of communication? Why is it so difficult to incorporate the player's ideas about character motivation into a planned campaign?
And when I think about this problem, I can immediately think of several things to blame:
The nefarious influence of published adventure scenarios; the unquestioned assumption that all charcters are going to form a party; the excessive time taken up by character creation in most RPGs; the misplaced priorities of character creation in most RPGs; and the lack of attention given by most RPGs to discussing the goals and structure of play.
The nefarious influence of published adventure scenarios
Published adventure scenarios suck. The writer of a published adventure has no idea who the characters are going to be, so he has to aim it at the most generic audience imaginable. The most basic form of this is old-man-in-a-tavern syndrome, where the PCs are supposed to be interested in exploring the dungeon just because some old guy in a tavern has a treasure map, or has rumors of great wealth to be found, or rumors of great peril that are going to happen if you don't go into cave X and kill monster Y.
(Geez, people, the old man in the tavern is so unneccessary anyway. If your adventure is a dungeon crawl, start the adventure at the entrance to the dungeon!! Don't start in the tavern with some half-assed offer that's going to derail your adventure if the players refuse it (i.e. a choice that is not a choice). Start at the entrance of the dungeon with a brief snippet of narration explaining how the characters got there and what their goal is. Then dive right into the dungeon crawling. If your players like dungeon-crawling, they'll appreciate that you skipped all the crap. If they don't like dungeon crawling, your adventure was going to fail anyway.)
Anyway, even when they don't use the old man in the tavern, published adventures suck because they have to use extremely generic hooks, based on motivations they assume all player characters will have. The two most common examples are: 1. Greed, and 2. The desire to save the world from Bad Stuff.
Even when a novice GM moves away from using published adventure scenarios to writing his or her own, there is a pernicious subliminal influence that remains. That influence is the assumption that the GM first creates an adventure in a vacuum and then figures out a way to hook the PCs into it.
Writing an adventure first, without knowing who the PCs will be, is much like writing a plot for an episode of Star Trek without knowing who any of the bridge crew are. (That sounds really dumb, but I hear that some of Star Trek episodes were actually based on rejected, recycled scripts originally meant for other purposes. Can anybody confirm or deny?) The Enterprise is visiting some planet for vaguely explained reasons, and then oh my gosh! something happens that prevents them from just flying away, and they have to get involved in some dumb self-contained plot between a bunch of NPCs on this dumb planet that nobody cares about. Those are the bad episodes. The good episodes are the ones where it's personal, where something the main characters care about is threatened, where the Enterprise is in danger because there are cool scary villians putting it in danger, and not just because of space-time anomalies or holodeck malfunctions, you see what I'm saying? You see how this applies to writing adventures around the main characters?
The Party Line
There is an assumption that goes unquestioned in many gaming groups that no matter what, player characters are going to form a party, i.e. wander around in a group each waiting for their chance to suggest a plan or offer a useful skill. Intra-party conflict and splitting the party up geographically are considered Things To Avoid. Of course you're going to be in a party! That's how you play RPGs, right?
(If you don't believe there are other ways to play, here's one: what if the PCs are leaders of rival kingdoms, for instance, and they plot against each other, and the GM mediates and referees?)
But even if party-style play really is what everybody wants, the structure of the party is something that needs to be discussed and usually isn't. Players who don't think about the party, and who each create their characters in isolation, will often meet up and find out that their characters are a really bad fit, or have nothing in common.
("We all meet up at the tavern? Excuse me, I'm a Cleric, why the heck would I be hanging out in a tavern?!?")
Then the players have to either
A. do some awkward shoehorning and rationalization to explain why these characters are in a party.
or B. refuse to team up, and dissolve the adventure into petty bickering. You can't play this way, so everybody eventually learns to do A no matter how lame it is.
A better solution is to create characters as a group and figure out ahead of time why they should all be on a team. "We were all from this one town which was burned down by the villian so we all swore a pact of revenge!" OK, good start! Much better than the above.
But this leaves no place for individual character motivations. If the party must not split up geographically, and there must not be intra-party conflict, then each character's individual goals must be sublimated to the overall goals of the party.
And if the overall goals of the party are generic to please everybody, and they're generic enough to be a hook for generic adventures, then they're going to be kind of, um... generic.
Character Creation Takes Too Long
So far, it appears that one major source of the problem is that characters often get created in isolation from other players and from the GM. So why is that?
I think one reason is pretty clear: character creation is a major time investment. It's such an involved process that players are tempted, even encouraged, to create their characters ahead of the start of play in order to save precious game-time.
Character creation, like adventure creation, in most RPGs takes SO FREAKING LONG because characters in most RPGs are way more detailed than they need to be. RPG designers have this obsession with giving you lots and lots of trivial choices during character creation: "Are you going to have 5 points in Etiquitte and 4 points in knowledge of Egyption heiroglyphics, or 4 points in Astronomy and spend the other 5 points on the ability to quick-draw your revolver? YOU MUST DECIDE ALL OF THESE THINGS BEFORE WE CAN START PLAYING."
Choices are good, sure, but the question is: how much will my choice of where to put my skill points actually impact the adventure? Does my choice of whether to have 10 or 11 points of Charisma make a strategic difference? Does it help me define my character as somebody who's interesting and fun to play? Or is it just a useless number that I'm forced to spend time thinking about (rolling or purchasing or however we do it in this game) during character creation, and then which I will then need to reference maybe once during the next five game sessions?
I guess it's the MUST DECIDE BEFORE WE CAN START PLAYINGn thing that's really the killer. Since we haven't started playing yet, I don't really know what it's going to be like to play this character, how he's going to interact with those around me, or what I want to do in the game. I might discover while playing that the choices I made during creation don't fit the world, don't fit the party, or don't fit how I want to play the character. But most RPGs frown on the idea of changing your character after he's created, except in very specific ways related to those experience points that you got. It's one of those "unwritten rules" -- so typically, I'm stuck with what I pick now. This encourages players to agonize over decisions and be very conservative about them. This makes it double frustrating when I never get a chance in play to use stuff on my character sheet that I agnozied over during character creation.
Character Creation has Misplaced Priorities
Some games have mechanics that interact with personality/backstory/motivation, some don't. In GURPS there are mental disadvantages that give you points in exchange for restricting your choices during the game. In White Wolf you get to recharge willpower when you act in accord with your inner nature. Stuff like that.
This is really weird, though! In GURPS, it's like having a strong personality is equivalent to being blind or physically handicapped -- it's a disadvantage that players wouldn't take unless they're bribed to do so (at least, that's what the extra points seem to be saying to me). It's completely optional; the default is not to have one. And if you do take one, it gives the GM yet another way to railroad you. The message is that you don't give your character a personality voluntarily because you want to make them fun to play -- you give it to them if you need some more points to buy skills with.
So is it better to have no mechanics for personality, in order to give the players complete freedom?
Well, maybe. But not everybody is an expert at coming up with interesting characters from a blank sheet of paper. If the game book declines to address these kind of issues at all, it sends the message that they're not important. The fact that a character is mostly defined as a block of stats sends a very strong message that stats are the focus of what your character is about. Most RPGs deny this but do it all the same. You know, there's typically that one paragraph in character creation about "Your stats are not important! What's important is your personality and backstory and motivation and all that role-playing stuff!". When this one paragraph is followed by SIXTY PAGES ABOUT GENERATING STATS AND SKILLS, and ZERO PAGES ABOUT GENERATING PERSONALITY AND MOTIVATION, it strikes me that the game designer is being a little bit hypocritical.
The GM and the players might all agree that character personality stuff should be important, but if the game book they're working from doesn't mention it at all, they don't have any common starting point, they don't have any shared vocabulary to talk about the issue, and it's all the more likely that they will have disagreements they don't even know about until they the disagreements come out and make the game not fun. Especially if the characters and adventure are being created in isolation from each other, with the assumption that the GM will then have to lure the player characters into his preconceived plotline.
What do we DO in this game?
Once I agreed to play Exalted. I was pretty excited about it and everything. I went over to meet the other players and start creating characters.
The other players were all talking, excitedly, about how many mortals they were going to be able to kill per round, based on some cool combination of charms and powers they were taking. "So, is that the object of the game, then? Kill as many mortals as possible? That sounds horrible." I thought. I asked what we were going to do in the game. I was pointed at the setting chapter of the book, the Epic Backstory of how the Epic World of Exalted ("Creation") got to be so Epic. I read about how Epic the Solar Exalted are, and read about the many Epic Powers that I could choose from. I kept asking, "So what do we DO in this game?" and kept getting answers about all these Epically Awesome Flashy Stunts of Epicness that my Epic character would be able to do and how awesome it would be.
"What do we DO in this game?" Nobody seemed to understand my question. How can I think of a character if I don't know what the game is about?
(I didn't even really have a clear picture of the setting, since the book spends so much time talking about how Epic the setting is that has no room for what it's like to live there. I really wanted to know what the regular folks in Creation are like, what do they do all day, whether their lives are hard, how my character might fit in or stand apart from this society, what conflicts they have that I might take sides in, and what I might do to make this world a better place. But as far as I could tell, if there are regular folks in Creation, they're not important except maybe as background color, because the game is all about these Solar Exalted ubermencsh superheroes who are stronger and faster and more magical and more important and better and divinely ordained to rule the world or something, and nobody cares about the peasants. Something about that made me hate the Solar Exalted, which I think was the opposite of what the writers intended.)
That was the one and only time that I've walked away from a role-playing game before it even got started. I wasn't feeling like I wanted to play a Solar Exalted at all, and I could already see that if I stayed in, there were going to be some pretty ugly incompatibilities between me and the other players, so rather than make myself and everybody else miserable, I just made up a semi-polite excuse and left. The GM was and is a good friend of mine, and so I apologized to him later and wished him luck in his Exalted campaign, but I don't regret leaving.
D&D at least has a shared assumption of a generic fantasy setting, and a shared assumption about the goal of play, i.e. that you are going to Go Down Into A Dungeon and Kill Monsters and Take Their Stuff. Shadowrun also has a pretty clear assumption that the players are going to be a bunch of starving lowlifes who hire on to dangerous and illegal corporate-espionage missions in order to get money to eat and buy gear. It's not everybody's cup of tea, but at least there's a clear idea of what the default game is going to be about. And if players want it to be about something else, they can change it, rewrite parts of the rules, house-rule stuff, introduce other goals, etc.
But most other RPGs I know of really want to be open-ended: "You can do whatever you want with our amazingly flexible game-system and all-inclusive setting!" This includes the non-dungeon-crawling variants of D&D, World of Darkness, Palladium stuff, and especially the supposed "universal" systems like GURPS. (This is why I don't think GURPS is actually a game. It's just a collection of rules for realistically simulating things. If you want to make GURPS into a game you have to add goals, motivations, challenges, rewards, choices, structure, everything. Saying "customization required" doesn't begin to cover it -- you literally have to be a game designer yourself if you want to get anything out of GURPS.) With no shared starting point about what you do in the game, it's much more likely that players are going to come to the table with unspoken disagreements as to what the game is about, which are going to lead to all kinds of grudges and unpleasantness later.
Note that goals, motivations, challenges, rewards, choices, structure, and so on -- the stuff that you have to add yourself if you're playing GURPS -- are the most important part of the game, and they're typically not talked about. The goals/challenges/rewards/choices/structure are as important for a game as the motivations are for a character in a story. If we're going to make this weird game/story hybrid thing work out, they're going to have to be congruent in some way.
D&D says "Here's a goal: Kill monsters and take their treasure. Here's a motivation: Getting treasure. Here's challenges: Monsters." Shadowrun says "Here's a goal: Infiltrate the corporation and steal their secrets. Here's a motivation: you need money to eat. Here's challenges: Corporate security systems and hired goons." And so on. If everybody agrees "we're playing kill-the-monsters-and-take-their-treasure", or "we're playing infiltrate-the-corporate-security-system-and-complete-the-mission", and agree to this before character and adventure creation begins, then they can probably have a good time, even if the story possibilities are pretty tightly constrained. They can make characters tailored to this kind of situation, the GM makes an adventure which will fit those characters, it's all good.
When you move away from those constrained channels, out into open waters, you immediately have problems navigating. The players are making up characters with motivations, thinking about what they want the game to be about. The GM is making up an unrelated story, thinking of what he wants the game to be about. Maybe they're going to be totally contradictory and not fit together at all. That's going to suck! Or else, maybe nobody will bother to think of what the game should be about, and it will be directionliess. That's going to suck too!
But it's even worse than that
It's even worse than that, though. The real paradox is that the harder everybody tries to "make a good story", the worse this problem gets.
What do I mean?
GM: "Hey, I'm a GM who REALLY CARES ABOUT MAKING A GOOD STORY! No hack-and-slashers or munchkins allowed in my campaign! This game is going to be all about depth and role-playing and character interaction and character personalities! I've got an original setting and an epic backstory and all kinds of cool plot twists made up already! Everybody needs to make up a motivation and a backstory and a personality!"
Player: "Oh cool! I am a player who REALLY CARES ABOUT MAKING A GOOD STORY! I'm going to make a highly motivated character with really subtle and realistic personality issues! I'm going to make up all of my character's family members and define their relationships with my character! I can't wait to play this game!"
And then the GM and the players meet up... and show each other the novellas they've each written.
There is no way to turn two (or three or four) unrelated novellas into a role-playing game. They're all going to be based on different sets of assumptions, they are each self-contained with little connection to each other, and everybody's already really attatched to what they have planned out, and not going to want to compromise on it.
So what's going to happen is that, because the players have agreed to grant the GM total authority, it's the GM's novella that's going to get acted out. The players' novellas are going to be neglected.
So the paradox is: the more the GM cares about story, and the more work I put into my character's backstory and motivations, the less chance I'm going to get to use any of it!
It doesn't have to be this way. If you've read all the way down to here, you're probably screaming, "It doesn't have to be that way! The players and the GM just need to start communicating with each other and the GM just has to not be so attatched to his plotline!"
You're exactly right, but that's another post. I'm done describing my three paradoxes now (when I started out, I was imagining that this would be a single, short post!) and next I'm going to talk about how really all three of them stem from the same source and what we can do about it.
Oho, what's this? It's a very late Comic!.
Now I go to work. I'll tell you about that cool idea later.
Jono has a short attention span
Comic should be up later tonight, along with Paradox number 3. And I have replies to all your replies on Paradox number 2. And I've got a couple more major posts coming up entitled "Jono's Girlfriend Requirments Document v1.0" and "Jono's Master Plan to Make Sure Aleksa Grows Up To Be A Gamer". And then I should really get started on my taxes...
But wait a second! I just had a totally amazing idea unrelated to any of these things! Whoa this is cool! I have to go work on this right now!
The Second Paradox
Thanks for some insightful comments on the "First Paradox" post, guys. This post ought to be a lot shorter.
So, what is an RPG, anyway? Give me your best one-sentence definition.
OK, does your definition have the word "story" or "storytelling" in it? Does it have the word "game" in it somewhere? I expect that most definitions do.
But "story" and "game" are not peanut butter and chocolate. They don't always fit together naturally. Sometimes they work at cross-purposes. This statement should come as a surprise to absolutely no-one who has ever played an RPG. I mean, a story needs to have a structure of rising tension to climax to resolution, it needs to have dramatic twists and pacing and revealed surprises that make sense in retrospect, and so on, which is why stories are usually written in toto beforehand and then presented to a passive audience. Games need to be unpredictable, and open-ended, with players responding to each other's moves to try to tip the outcome one way or the other. They need to have clearly established rules and a fair, level playing field, as it were.
How to resolve the two is a much bigger subject than I'm interested in tackling right now, so I'm just going to focus on one teeny-tiny corner of it: At some point in running a game, every GM is going to face a decision about whether the story or the game is more important. Specifically:
At some point, every GM is going to face a decision about whether to fudge or not.
Say I just rolled a critical hit for the monster. It's going to kill one of the player's characters. It's completely contrary to drama to have one of the main characters die like a chump during what was meant to be an unimportant random encounter with a low-level baddie. This sucks. I am highly tempted to fudge it. That's one reason I roll dice behind my GM screen, after all: so I can lie about them. And what about that all-important skill-roll? If the player fails to jump the chasm, there's no way the adventure can continue, so again I basically need to fudge that roll.
Those are fairly benevolent uses of fudging. But what about important NPCs? Say one of the players gets a lucky arrow shot against my Big Bad Villian while he's making his speech, and rolls damage that should technically kill him. But... but... I had plans for that villian! The rest of the adventure as planned is going to fall apart if he dies before the dramatic final confrontation. I am tempted to fudge and give the villian extra hit points. (This is far from theoretical. This situation seems to come up every time I try to have a recurring NPC villian. Sometimes I fudge and sometimes I don't, but either way I feel like I made the wrong choice.)
Can you see how fudging to keep an NPC alive is closely related to Illusionism? The players think their attacks and the dice they roll matter, but they don't because the GM is just going to decide who lives and dies.
Fudging is sacrificing the fairness of the game for the sake of keeping the story "on track".
I really don't like fudging. It feels like cheating. It's like, I spent a lot of time and money buying all these RPG books and learning all these rules. The players put a lot of thought into choosing their stuff during character creation, choosing their weapons, choosing their tactics, and so on in order to make their characters effective. And what was the point of all that if I'm just going to ignore it all and use GM Fiat Power to decide all the important stuff? We might as well be playing freeform and diceless, in that case.
Actually, the main reason I don't like playing freeform and diceless is precisely because that means everything is going to be GM Fiat Power. And I don't feel like I can ever be fully impartial, as the GM, since I have a stake in the story. Playing diceless requires me to judge that one player's action deserves to succeed while another player's action deserves to fail, and why was that? Am I playing favorites? Or am I just agreeing to everything that moves the story the way I already planned it? Blah. This is why I want a fair, impartial game system that I can fall back on to arbitrate conflicts and decide success or failure.
I just don't want a game system that is constantly ruining drama by making absolutely critical actions fail due to bad luck, and by randomly killing important characters for no fault of their players.
Fairness, in a game, means that players will lose sometimes. But in a story there's an expectation that the main characters are going to make it all the way to the climax and then just barely win through in a dramatic final conflict. This, therefore, is the second paradox:
An RPG is a story and a game, but the need of a story for rising tension and dramatic pacing runs exactly counter to the need of a game for fairness and unpredictability.
My cousin Jacob was really into RIFTS. Back in the early-mid 90s, every time I went over to his house we would try to play it. He owned the game books, so he would GM. Usually, each time I visited he would have a new sourcebook and be itching to try it out, so he would either come up with an excuse to transport my existing character to the new setting, or else I would create a character in that setting.
(I have a lot of complaints about RIFTS as a game system, but I'll save those for another time. If you've never heard of RIFTS, it's a bare-bones, powergamer-friendly system grafted onto an "anything goes" setting, with every single sci-fi, fantasy, and horror gimmick you can possibly think of all thrown together on a post-apocalyptic Earth full of magic and robots and vampires and dimensional gateways. It's as dumb as it sounds. It's also as awesome as it sounds.)
So one time, I was making a new character to go with this space-opera themed RIFTS setting book. I think it was maybe called "Phase World" or something? All I remember about my dude was that he was some kind of bald blue-skinned alien. I picked out all his skills and stuff and then we attempted to start playing:
Jake: OK, what do you do?
Me: I dunno, where am I? What's going on?
Jake: Where do you want to be?
Me: Ummm... maybe I want to be... in a spaceport? Like, I'm trying to get a spaceship or something?
Jake: OK, you've got a spaceship. What do you do with it?
Me: This is dumb.
Now, I'm not telling this story to pick on Jake (I know he reads this site, for one thing!) He has since become a much much better GM. We were both dumb teenagers back then, and both of us were at fault because neither of us was willing to put in the creative effort to make something happen.
I'm going to call the above problem the "After you" problem: the PC is waiting for the GM to set up a challenging situation; the GM is waiting for the PC to set up a goal. "After you!" "No, I insist, after you!"
This is why I still like dungeon crawls, by the way. Dungeon-crawl-style adventures have been heavily deprecated in RPG design since at least 1990. Even as computer games based around nothing but dungeon crawling and collecting loot and experience have gone mainstream (cough WoW cough) there has been a prevailing attitude, encouraged very much by White Wolf and to some degree encouraged by Palladium, Steve Jackson, etc. that dungeon crawls are for primitive munchkins and troglodytes and clueless losers who are still playing D&D, while real roleplayers are focused on the story. (I'd like to briefly point out that "dungeon" is not the opposite of "story"; a dungeon is just a setting, where a story could happen, or not.)
But the good thing about dungeon crawls is that they provide a very clear and explicit framework for adventuring. The player has a clear goal (reach the end, kill everything, take all treasure). The player is constantly making tactical choices about which way to go, whether to turn back, what to do about traps and obstacles, and so on. At the same time, the player's options are mainly limited to a small and well-understood set of choices, which keeps things managable. The dungeon walls both restrict movement to a finite number of paths and also limit knowledge of what's up ahead, so each room is a surprise. This framework allows the player to stay in control of the pacing, while the GM responds by describing what the player encounters. The obstacles and monsters in a dungeon are usually clearly defined and well-suited to being described by the game mechanics and overcome by the abilities on the player's character sheet. In other words, the whole dungeon-crawl thing is just a very solid basis for gameplay. It's also something that just about everybody has done once or twice, so it's a nice common basis of experience to draw on. And it doesn't require the player to put a whole lot of effort into defining a character's backstory or personal issues or any of that. Depending on the GM's ingenuity, a pen-and-paper dungeon crawl -- yes, even in 2007 -- can be fun, challenging, and engaging. So sayeth the Jono!
So when I tried to move away from dungeon-based adventures, I had a real hard time. To me as a novice GM, preparing for an adventure equalled drawing a map and filling it with monsters and other interesting challenges. But how do you do that when the players are roaming all over the world? There are no walls; they can go anywhere. I might make up some outdoor areas with planned encounters and NPCs and monsters and treasure to find and even things like traps and puzzles, but what if the players don't decide to go that way? What if they decide go somewhere else? Somewhere that (gulp) I haven't mapped out??
You know that one old Warner Brothers cartoon where Elmer Fudd is chasing Daffy Duck (I think) and they both run so fast that they run right off the edge of the cartoon film and end up in this empty white void of nothingness? Scary, isn't it? That's what I always felt like, as a GM, if the players went somewhere that I hadn't mapped out. They had just walked off the edge of the map into an empty white void and the game couldn't continue and I had no idea what to do.
A lot of the problem, clearly, had to do with my youthful fixation on Mapping Things Out and this idea that adventures had to be about places and things rather than people and events.
But GMs who write story-based adventures also know the fear of the Empty White Void. I hear complaints like this all the time: "I wrote this great story, but the players derailed it by killing the guy who was supposed to give them the next clue." Stuff like that, you know? A novice GM gets it into his/her head that an adventure should have a good story to it, so he/she writes a good story that proceeds logically from investigating a murder to finding a clue to confronting a villian, but in the first scene the players unanimously decide to ignore the murder and instead hijack a submarine and head for Antarctica because one of the PCs likes penguins. Then what? The GM hasn't prepared any adventures set on a submarine at sea. The players are off in the empty white void again (literally, in the case of Antarctica). GM doesn't know what to do, players don't have any more challenges to face, game can't proceed, everything breaks down in arguments and silliness. After having this happen to one's game a few times, the GM learns that the Empty White Void spells doom for his/her game. It must be avoided at all costs.
Different GMs evolve different coping strategies, some of them overtly forceful, others subtly manipulative, to keep the players in line. (After all, doesn't it say right in the book that the GM can override any rule for the good of the game?) At the overtly forceful end, there are GMs who assert override on player characters: "No, you can't do that." "No, your character wouldn't want to do that, it doesn't make sense." Obviously, this sucks. The GM controls everything else, he/she shouldn't get to control the player characters too. Slightly less forceful but still obnoxious is the GM who invents arbitrary obstacles or threatens punishments for players who try to move away from the path of an adventure: "You can't go into the woods yet, there's, um, been an avalanche that blocks the road there." "Your fixer just called, he says that's a terrible plan and he'll report you to the authorities if you try it." All of these things are still obvious railroading. The GM is saying, "You're not allowed to try to do things I haven't already thought of."
At the other end, the subtle manipulators: it's not railroading in any obvious way, but they still wrote an adventure with only one path through it, so that's the only way things can proceed. The players don't run into a wall if they try to go off-course, but it becomes clear pretty fast that the only way anything interesting is going to happen and the only way they can move forward in the adventure is to do what the GM wants them to do. And the GM will be dropping some pretty heavy hints to let you know what that is.
I've played in a lot of games like this. In fact, I'd say that in my experience as a player, this is the most common mode of GMing I've encountered. Pretty soon the players learn to go along with it -- "OK, obviously the GM wants me to get on board that ship, and nothing else is going to happen until I do, so I might as well do it". "All the clues are pointing towards this ex-megacorp genetic engineer dude, so I guess that's who we're supposed to talk to next." Any adventure which is built around puzzles basically works this way: "Right, I have to figure out what ths animated statue wants from me before it will let me go through the door. Time to Guess What the GM Was Thinking!" Becuase no matter how clever a solution you think up, it's not going to work unless it matches the answer the GM planned for.
If the players don't mind this, and they trust the GM to be interesting, this can be a functional way to play, but it does make a mockery of the idea that the players have choices or are in any way in control of their characters' destinies.
Another, even subtler form of manipulation, is the "all roads lead to Rome" idea -- there are spots in the adventure where the GM presents you with a choice, but he/she has already figured out how each of the possible choices will lead the players into the setup for the next planned encounter or scene. (The problem is the phrase "each of the possible choices" -- the best way to screw up this GM is to do none of the things he/she planned for. Then watch him/her scramble to think of some way to get the adventure "back on track" without breaking the illusion of free will.) I've run games in this style myself plenty of times.
The Forge has a good term for these kinds of subtle manipulation: "Illusionism", as in, players get to have the illusion of free will. They call it "Participationism" when the players know about it and voluntarily go along with the GM's plans in order to make the adventure work.
I seem to recall that the GM's chapter in GURPS (3rd ed?) explicitly encourages illusionism. I don't have the book handy so I don't know the exact quote, but it says something like "This way you can avoid the appearance of manipulating the players -- and appearance is more important than reality!"
I thought that was kind of a cool trick, but it always bothered me: I wanted to give the players choices for real. Several times I tried writing adventures with a branching structure, like a "choose-your-own-adventure" book. The problems with this are two-fold: First, it's absolutely impossible to predict every possible reaction a player could have to a certain situation; you can only prepare for a couple of ones that you think most likely. Second, every branch that you write represents a massive investment of GM prep time and energy that you will never get a chance to use if the players don't choose that branch. This problem gets exponentially worse the more branch-points are in the adventure. I don't particularly like preparing for eight hours in order to make up enough material to get through one hour of play.
This is the paradox, then, the first paradox of three: If I give the players freedom of choice, they'll go off into the Empty White Void and they won't have fun. But if I don't give them freedom of choice, I'm railroading them and they won't have fun.
Many years later, long after that stillborn RIFTS game and after many other campaigns both failed and successful, there was a time when I tried to do a one-or-two-shot GURPS adventure for three friends (including Jake) where they were astronauts crashed on an alien planet. I was adamant that I wasn't going to railroad them at all. I mapped out a large chunk of the planet surface, made up stats for some vicious alien monstrosities, made up some puzzles involving the unique biology of the alien life, made up the basics of an alien language they could try to learn, made up some evil aliens who would try to find and capture them, gave them a limited air and food supply so they'd have to seek out supplies from the pieces of their ruined ship which had scattered across the planet. I was quite excited about it.
It failed. Miserably. The players were clearly feeling a lack of direction and motivation. They complained that nothing was happening, that I wasn't "keeping the game moving" like I should be, that I was forcing them to make choices about pointless little details and to play out doing things that they didn't care about. I realized that it wasn't fun but I didn't know what to do about it. I was adamantly against anything that might have been "railroading", so I didn't want to tell them where to go, but the result is that they didn't have any particular reason to go anywhere, or any goal other than survival. I thought that exploring and encountering creatures would be fun, but everything just fell flat.
"Remember back when we played RIFTS before I learned how to GM? And I kept saying 'what do you want to do' and you kept saying 'What's going on?' Well that's what you're doing now!", complained Jake.
All that prep-work I had done on that planet, and it was still an Empty White Void. So frustrating!
Next time: Paradox number 2.
Three Paradoxes of Role-Playing: Intro
On Saturday I got to meet Ben Lehman. Yesterday the indie RPGs that I ordered came in the mail. I am Excited.
To explain I must go back aways. I've been doing role-playing off and on since... gee wiz, when was it? Something like 1992, when I was in high school, I think, so let's say 15 years. More than half my life. I had played HeroQuest (the board game) and video game RPGs like Phantasy Star (and pseudo-RPGs like Zelda) and then one day after school I saw some kids playing AD&D first edition in the school cafeteria. They wouldn't let me join but I flipped through their PHB and I was like, whoa cool! Races and classes! Polyhedral dice! A monetary system based on five different precious metals! Adventures mapped out in secret on graph paper! I could make up something like this.
So my first RPG was a homebrew system called "Master Plan", which was heavily, heavily oriented towards dungeon-crawling and simulating my favorite video game RPGS. Simulating them precisely. You know how closely I simulated video game RPGs? Early on, Master Plan had save points in it, OK? The player could go there and save his game state and that's where he would restart from if he died. Yeah. I know. (I dropped the save points after one of my PCs started abusing them to retry situations with foreknowledge, but it was a really dumb idea to begin with.)
My PCs, played by my cousins Jacob and Bobby (may he rest in peace) were a slime-monster wizard named Globble D. Gleep, and a dragon who spent all his time riding around on a magic-powered piece of construction equipment. They were on an epic quest to stop these evil undead real-estate salesmen who could only be killed by Holy Hydrosulfuric Acid. It was pretty silly.
The one and only Master Plan campaign ended when my players got fed up with me for taking way, way too long to design The Most Gigantically Over-Elaborate Dungeon Ever OMG. They just wanted to start playing, already, but I was totally obsessed with topping my previous dungeons in terms of sheer intricacy of puzzles and traps and secret doors and triggered events and all that stuff. I was very much thinking like a computer game programmer and designing in the abstract, ignoring what my players actually wanted.
So, that was my first experience with a campaign falling apart. But far from the last.
I've both run and played in many, many RPG campaigns since then. Short list: several versions of D&D and AD&D; Palladium games including Rifts, Heroes Unlimited, TMNT and other strangenesses; Shadowrun; Vampire; GURPS; TOON; and Unknown Armies. Oh yeah, there was that convention game of Sailor Moon that one time. This list would be a lot longer if I counted the many other homebrew systems that I playtested but never really played, or the many games that fell apart before they even really got going. (Dammit, I really wanted to play Shock: last Saturday!!)
Some of these have been wonderful experiences, others have been awkward and frustrating. One thing they've all had in common: except for one-shots, I have never finished a campaign to my satisfaction. The group always breaks up or loses interest or is forced to separate. It makes me sad. I keep on trying RPGs because I know from the few insanely great sessions how much fun it is possible to have. But in practice I think the frustrating times have outnumbered the awesome times. I am trying to figure out why. I've been trying to analyze the root causes. I think I can sum them up in three paradoxes.
First paradox comes in the next post.