Sunday, August 27, 2006

Character Integrity

For a while now, I have argued that when I play RPGs, I'm primarily interested in the story content. It's especially true when I am the GM, but as a player...let's just say things get a little bit murky. Don't get me wrong, a story is still important. However, as a player the story gets filtered through my character. I want to become immersed in my character; I want to experience the story through his eyes.

When I start a new game, I usually have a strong image of what I want my character to become. Unfortunately, this initial concept too-often gets destroyed shortly after contact with an actual game. Sometimes the game's rules and mechanics simply don't support my idea. Other times, my interests change and the character gets left behind. Still, all too often, my character gets sabotaged by the GM. In any case, disappointment and disillusionment are sure to follow.

Let me be clear here. This typically happens when I come to the first session with a fully formed idea. Starting with a fuzzy concept can help--but it does not get rid of the problem. At some point in the game, my mental image of the character will solidify, and inevitably that concept begins to conflict with the realities of the game. The conflict is inevitable.

Let me say that again, I don't think we can ever eliminate this conflict; we can only control it.

Look at it from a writer's point of view--when I'm writing a story I have complete control over my characters, right? Wait, not so fast, my choices are still limited. My character's behavior must follow some internal logic. Their actions must be believable. Where the rubber meets the road (or in my case, where the toner meets the paper), there is still conflict between the original character concept and the constraints placed on that character by the story. Even in the largely-controlled realm of writing, I never really escape this conflict. As a player, I surrender more control over the story to others. The conflict between character and game increases proportionally.

So, how do we manage this conflict? For now, lets put aside issues of unreasonable player expectations. These are cases where a given idea cannot be modeled by a particular game system, or ideas that seem more interesting on paper then they are at the table. These are real problems, but I don't think any in-game system can address them. They're more a matter of experience. Furthermore, I think their influence will fade as we can manage the other problems.

Instead, let's focus on the interactions between players and GMs. It's true, other players can do things that damage your character's integrity, but these often rise from subtile social interactions, which are much harder to address. The GM's ability to disrupt a character concept, on the other hand, is orders of magnitude greater. Arguably the game's rules exist to mediate between the players and the GM. From that point of view, it seems reasonable to engineer rules to help protect a character's integrity from heavy-handed GMs.

The GM/Player interface is a tricky landscape. Traditionally, RPG games describe player/GM roles as follows: players have absolute control over their character, while the GM controls everything else. While this sounds clear enough, the border between a character and his environment is somewhat fuzzy. GMs often do things that, in effect, take control of the characters. When he asks you to make a fear check, he's trying to take control. When he narrates the effect of your action, he is taking control. The GM also has considerable influence over the flow of the story--and the story will shape the characters. Finally, the GM sets the difficulty numbers, which directly determine how competent your character will appear.

Now, not all of this is bad. I'm actually a big fan of surrendering some control of my characters. The problem is, any time the GM takes control (or partial control), he can gravely damage the integrity of your character. Generally, these problems can be placed in two broad categories: Active Character Disruptions and Passive Character Disruptions.

Active Character Disruption:

This is where the GM hits your character with a blunt instrument. Let me set the scene: I'm playing a dashing romantic swashbuckler. At the Governor's Ball, I approach Lady Hastings and try to seduce her (she may have information about her husband's troop deployments--so I have selflessly volunteered to "question" her). I am midway through my witty repartee, when the GM asks me to make a roll. I fail. Badly.

The GM then smiles and says, "She leans in close and whispers, 'My good sir, whatever do you have in mind?' Just as you open your mouth to reply, you suddenly let rip a great fart. Really, it's like a trumpet fanfare. The lady turns red and bustles away in a swirl of skirts." Everyone around the table laughs. My character gets the nickname "Fartanion". And, the image I was trying so to build is (metaphorically) gone with the wind.

GMs often use failed die rolls as an opportunity to have fun at the character's expense. Heck, I do this when I GM, a lot. Many game books even recommend create "interesting" results when the character blunders a roll. It is a pervasive part of the gaming culture. Of course, a little embarrassment can be good. It helps keep the characters human. But there's a fine line between a character-building setback and a character-destroying pratfall.

How a character fails is as important (if not more important) than what a character does. As I have said elsewhere, failures should build conflict. This conflict can either strengthen the image you are trying to build, helping you explore your character's central issues, or it can cut across your character, knocking you off the rails. Unfortunately, much of the character concept lives entirely inside the player's head. The character may have goals and desires that the player never explicitly expressed. Even if the GM wants to introduce conflicts that build on your character concept, he often lacks the information he needs--except at the most superficial level.

What's the solution? Simple. Let the players determine the results when they fail. Obviously we need a few rules or guidelines here, but that's the basic concept. Note: this fits hand-in-gloveishly with the "evolve or resolve" issue from last week. In a nutshell, the player makes a single roll. If they fail the roll, they can either let the conflict resolve (and pass control back to the GM), or they can make the conflict evolve by introducing a complication.

Back to the swashbuckler example. I fail the roll. I can either surrender control to the fart-joke-loving GM, or I can introduce my own complicating elements--something that fits (or constructively opposes) my character. Here, I narrate the following complication, "As I slip my hand around the lady's waist, I feel a heavy hand drop on my shoulder. A low, gravely voice whispers in my ear, 'Sir, I must ask you to take your hand off my wife!'." This lets my character maintain his suave composure, and may lead to a new in-concept game element--a dual! Also, it leaves open the possibility of seducing Lady Hastings after we resolve the current interruption. So, I probably want to embarrass General Hastings without causing significant harm (murdering someone's spouse tends to be a put-off).

Passive Character Disruption:

As the name suggests, this is far more subtile--but can be even more disruptive in the long run. The typical scenario is as follows: I create a character with a strong central conflict. For example, my sister is missing and I'm trying to find her. I weave this theme through my character's stats and background. I come to the table ready to play this image, and from the moment the first die falls to the moment when the last slice of pizza is eaten, our party is off killing orks. Just orks. There's no mention of my sister. No clues, no hints. Nothing.

I strongly believe that GMs need to incorporate player-generated ideas (like the missing sister) into their story arc. Ideally, they should let the story-arc grow organically around the player-generated ideas, and these conflicts should become central to the larger story. But, even if it's just an unrelated subplot, it must make it into the game.

However, GMs are always overworked. There's always too much information to keep track of; too little time to prepare. GMs are only human, and it's all too easy for these details to fall between the cracks.

Players can help by communicating their priorities to the GM. This can be overt, "Hey, I want my character's sister to be part of the game!" It can also happen as a part of character creation. Don't just take disadvantages for the points--use them as a deliberate flag for the GM. If I take the "Enemy" disadvantage, I'm telling the GM (and everyone at the table) that I have this cool idea for a nemesis, and I want that nemesis to be part of the story. I hate to say this, because it should be obvious, but only take disadvantages that you actually want to play.

Secondly, players can help the GM by taking every opportunity to bring their disadvantages, goals, hopes and fears back into the game. Don't just wait for the GM to force you to make an "Alcoholic" roll, put yourself in positions where your alcoholic disadvantage will create problems. When you're trying to track down an NPC, decide to "just check" the bar. After all, one drink won't hurt anything...GMs should reinforce this behavior by giving out brownie points whenever the players introduce interesting complications.

Several games (particularly newer, independent games) use interesting positive reinforcements for playing out key character concepts. The Burning Wheel uses beliefs and instincts. Beliefs describe the character's core beliefs (also read as "the player's priorities"--you use beliefs to formally describe the in-game expectations for your character), and the player is rewarded for playing out these beliefs. Instincts represent hardcoded reactions. They tell the GM (and everyone at the table), how you will react to specific situations. You can override them, but you're rewarded for following your instincts (and sometimes they let you break the rules).

The Riddle of Steel uses spiritual attributes to represent a character's goals, wants, needs and beliefs. If a character has a three-die passion of "Loves Gwen, the bar wench at The Oak and Thistle," he will get +3 dice on any roll that relates to this attribute (for example, when protecting Gwen from bandits). Spiritual attributes also get tied into the game's experience systems--characters who follow their spiritual attributes will advance faster than those who don't. All in all, this encourages players to create a strong character concept, to actively bring that concept to the table and to do everything they can to keep it there.

Players also need to feel empowered to bring fresh conflicts into the games. Many systems let the players pay brownie points to take narrative control over the story--though most players will only use this to get themselves out of trouble, not to make more. I think there's a logical disconnect here. If we want the players to actively inject new conflict into the story, then we should reward them for doing so. Using brownie-points to create conflicts actually create a cost to the player (beyond the difficulty itself).

I haven't seen many good mechanics for encouraging player-generated conflicts. My "evolve or resolve" concept should fit the bill. I think a lot of GMless gaming is probably aimed in this direction. Donjon, however, probably takes the most novel approach. Players can make perception rolls at any time. If they succeed, they see something. The greater their success, the more they can control what they see. So, if you want to bring a subplot back into the game--it's only a perception roll away. Of course, Donjon is designed as a modern hack-and-slash system--so it's no poster child for story-based games. But the idea could be used in more-narrative games.

As always, let me know what you think. I'd love to hear your ideas on the topic.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Conflict: Resolve or Evolve

I have a problem with the way most RPGs handle conflict. Here's the short form: GMs often abuse dice mechanics in a mistaken effort to artificially increase tension. I think this is a holdover from the RPG industry's wargame heritage. If you want to improve the tension in a game, make the game more difficult: reduce the player's odds of success, increase the complexity and make the system harder to master, or complicate resource management.

While these techniques may be useful in a strictly tactical game, they often sabotage story. Conflict drives every good story. Good conflicts follow the laws of cause and effect. They arise naturally from the story. Their resolution should feed back into the story, influencing the narrative flow. Conflict must remain central to the story.

Let's say my character, Bob, tries to stab an NPC named Fred. At the topmost view, Bob's success or failure is unimportant. What matters is a) Bob's motivation and b) the ripple effects from Bob's actions. From this viewpoint, spending thirty minutes rolling each thrust and parry is a waste of time and energy.

Let's look at an example. Bob needs to sneak into the infamous Castle of Four Winds. He crosses the moat unseen and starts to scale the tall, slick walls. The GM wants the moment to feel dramatic, so he decides that Bob must make ten successful climb rolls to reach the top.

My reaction: "ARGGGGG! Thump! Thump! Thump! (the sound of my head slamming repeatedly into the table)"

OK, what's wrong with this situation. First, the tension comes from game mechanics, not from the story. As a player, I'm focused on the dice and stats. Sure, the GM may try to play up the drama by describing the feel of the slick stones under Bob's fingers, or the way the wind howls around our hero. That's great--for a small number of rolls, but how can anyone maintain the tension over all 10 rolls?

The rules of good storytelling insist that the tension increases as the scene progresses. The GM's description should get more dramatic with each roll. This is very hard; most of us fail most of the time. For example, GM may make the initial description too dramatic, leaving no room to grow; or he may make a weak initial description, one that has no dramatic weight. Later descriptions can either become repetitive and boring, or they rapidly escalate to ridiculous proportions.

The worst case comes from what I call "Traditional D&D Combat." Here, you have dozens upon dozens of rolls to resolve a single conflict. Say Bob takes a good hit. The GM wants to build a visceral sense of tension, so he describes the ork's axe slicing through the meat in Bob's shoulder. However, Bob only loses 1/10th of his HP. Soon he's running around with a half-dozen graphically-described-but-mechanically-minor injuries. The game starts to resemble Monty Python's "Black Knight" sketch.

This brings up a related point. While the actual description is important, it's the player's sense of risk that really matters. All too often there is a disconnect between the GM's description, and the game mechanics. The GM can describe an edge-of-your-seat, cold-sweat, higher-brain-functions-have-stopped danger--but, if the player knows he has a 98% chance of success, mere words won't carry much weight.

To sum up, we want our GMs to create an impromptu, reasonable sounding, realistic yet still dramatic set of descriptions that closely match the actual risk faced by our character over a series of random die rolls. Good luck.

But, the climbing example has an even bigger problem. Good conflict needs to be the cause of interesting effects. Here, I mean "interesting" in the sense of "May you live in interesting times." As a quick rule of thumb, the player's situation should become more difficult and more complicated. Ideally this happens both when they fail and when they succeed, but I would settle for interesting failures. Success, after all, tends to drive the characters deeper into the story.

Let's look at the climbing example again. What happens if Bob succeeds? He gets to the top of the wall. Ho, hum. Still, he's now inside the Castle of Four Winds. Any number of bad things might happen to him there.

Let's look at the other side, what happens if he fails?

One possibility, Bob falls to his death. While that may instill a real sense of risk, story-wise it is a pitiful way to resolve conflict. Dying generally ends the story (at least as far as Bob's concerned). It doesn't heighten dramatic tension; it brings everything to a sudden halt. Don't get me wrong, death can create good story (e.g. Boromir's death in Fellowship of the Ring). In RPGs, these tend to come from a collaborated effort between the player and the GM. It's something you work for over several gaming sessions. A character's death should be glorious. Random deaths are, by definition, pointless.

So, maybe the fall merely injures Bob. That seems better, but it's still not great. Massive injuries either incapacitate the character, taking him out of the story (similar to death, only temporary), or the injury has no real effect on play. Bob quaffs a healing potion, or Raymond, the party priest, says a few magical words and suddenly we're off slaughtering orks again. In traditional RPGs, injuries rarely add to the drama in any significant way.

Also, GMs (myself included) tend to put the players in life-threatening situations and then flinch. Back to the climbing example, even if Bob fails, the average GM will give him second (and third, and fourth...) chances. "Ok, roll your dexterity to see whether you catch yourself before you plummet to your death...Hmm, roll again to see if you can grab a protruding branch on the way down..." This gets back to the perceived risk issue--if you know the GM won't kill you, much of the risk evaporates.

This leads to two rules for creating good conflict:

1: Conflict must cause interesting complications

Before introducing an element of conflict, think about how things might go wrong. Remember, this can include complications even when the character otherwise succeeds. If the player kills an NPC in combat, does that NPC have a brother (or sister, spouse, offspring or parent) that will come looking for revenge? If the character successfully scales the wall--what dark secrets lurk on the other side.

For failures, it helps to look at conflict as a complete task, not as the component actions. I roll to see whether Bob reaches the top of the wall undetected. Failure does not necessarily mean Bob failed at the act of climbing. Maybe something happens that prevents him from reaching the top. For example, a guard might spot him when he's only half-way up.

2: Roll the dice once; resolve or evolve

Roll the dice. When they land, either accept the result and narrate the resolution (resolve), or add a complication that ratchets up the conflict (evolve). This evolution may lead to additional die rolls. Having the guard spot Bob is a perfect demonstration of conflict evolution. The conflict goes from "I need to get up this wall undetected" to "I'm stuck halfway up this wall, and the guards have bows."

Good conflict evolution should force the character to make hard decisions. In the climbing example, the character must decide whether to keep climbing (probably fighting his way up to the top), or to abandon his attempt and try to flee.

Conflict evolution can also be subtile. For example, instead of having a guard spot the character, maybe the character is nearly to the top of the wall, when a lovesick scullery maid decides to stop just above him. She leans against the wall and stares out into the night. She hasn't seen our hero yet, but it would be hard for him to sneak past her. Does he wait? Clinging to the side of the wall is exhausting and dangerous. The longer he stays, the greater the chance of someone spotting him. Does he try to sneak past? That also risks discovery. Does he try to kill her quickly and quietly--thus removing a potential witnesses? Is her lover coming to join her, thus further complicating the scene?

Of course, creating and evolving good conflicts places a major burden on the GM, and most GMs are overburdened as it is. To partially alleviate this, I propose pushing much of the responsibility onto the players.

Here's the general flow:

  • The GM can always add an external complication to the conflict. This represents something that complicates the situation, but is not a failure on the player's part (e.g. the scullery maid above). It's OK to have a group of guards walk past on patrol. Having the guards automatically spot a hidden character is uncool.

  • If the player fails, he may add a complication to temporarily avoid his fate. The complication must have a serious impact on the rest of the scene, and the GM must approve. Possibilities include an injury that affects performance (e.g. hand smashed and useless), equipment failure (weapon broken or possibly just disarmed), or the introduction of outside elements (the guards spot Bob halfway up the wall). If the player does not add a complication, the GM is free to narrate any result. "Oh, goody. You fall to your death."

  • Turn-about is fair play. The GM can add complications to NPCs to mitigate their failures. However, the GM should only use this option on major, named NPCs. Cannon fodder and faceless thugs can just die anonymously.

This would probably work best using a narrative mechanic where the winner of a roll gets to describe the results (e.g. The Pool). But, I suspect this system could be strapped on to any game engine. It may rattle a bit at highway speeds, however.