Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Thematic Batteries

I'm a big fan of Paul Tevis's gaming podcast Have Games, Will Travel. Paul has shown real support for independent role-playing games, and I always feel that there are a lot of similarities between his play style and mine.

Recently, I listened to his interview with Joshua BishopRoby, the designer of Full Light, Full Steam. Based on their discussion, I desperately want to get my hands on this game.

In particular, their discussion of the game's thematic batteries really piqued my interest. I think this is a powerful, general concept that could be used in a wide range of games. Mind you, I've only heard descriptions of these rules, I haven't read them or tried them in play.

Basically, these are player-defined descriptors for the character. A thematic battery must have both positive and negative aspects. During play, you gain points every time the bad side is invoked. You can then use these points to give yourself appropriate in-game advantages later on.

For example, you might take "Youth" as a thematic battery. During play, you will struggle with being young. People won't take you seriously, or listen to your ideas. They won't trust you to do things on your own. You're looked down on, and talked down to. However, having suffered all this, you can then use your youth to your advantage--perhaps convincing the guard that you're just a lost child who needs help finding his way home.

This hits several big issues for me. Players are encouraged to create a strong, core concept for their character. Players are also encouraged to build conflict into their character, and they're rewarded for playing out these conflicts at the table.

However, the really interesting thing is that thematic batteries seem to incorporate other players in building and maintaining your characters core concept. As I understand it, the other players should introduce conflicts for your character based on your thematic batteries.

But here's my question, how far does this go? If I'm playing a character with a "Veteran" thematic battery, can someone else decide that I have a limp from an old war wound? Does that limp then become a permanent part of my character's description?

Typically, I consider character concepts inviolate. I resent any actions by other players or the GM that alters my character in any way. But, I must admit, I am intrigued by this idea of communal character building.

There are a couple reasons I think this might work. First, since the alteration is based on my thematic battery, it should (more or less) fit within my character concept. Secondly, since that aspect of my character is created at the table, during a dramatic moment, it is more likely to be remembered. It is therefor more likely to become a vital part of the ongoing story. Finally, I see this working somewhat like improvisational jazz. I trust the other players to listen to the tune I'm trying to create for my character, then improvise a riff that harmonizes with my groove. Basically, they should try to help me bring my character idea to life--not use the rules to screw me over or score a cheap laugh.

So, if anyone's actually read the rules (or played) for Full Light, Full Steam, or if you've seen similar mechanics in action, please let me know. This is an area I'm interested in exploring more fully.



Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Decisions That Matter

OK, in a number of posts, I've mentioned that players must make decisions that matter, but I never really stopped to explain what "decisions that matter" means to me.

Put simply, for the players to be actual participants in creating the story, their characters must be faced with real decisions that have a significant impact on the story. In many (if not most) games, characters are usually faced with false choices. Ether there's only one obvious answer, or no matter what the character chooses, the GM will railroad the story back to his desired story-line.

Sounds easy, but actually enabling stories in play often feels quite difficult. As I see it, these decisions come in three broad categories: pre-scene decisions, mid-scene decisions and post-scene decisions.

Pre-Scene Decisions

Pre-scene decisions represent all the decisions that the characters make before actually starting a scene. Again, I'm interested in conflict here, not necessarily combat. The characters might be preparing to present their case in court, or perhaps the want to sell the queen's jewels on the black market. Whatever. Pre-scene decisions include all the plans and preparations that the characters make before voluntarily stepping into a potentially difficult situation.

In many games, these are the only real decision a character can make. They are also often the bane of many traditional GMs. After all, the characters often decide to do something unexpected. Instead of hiking through the Dark and Dangerous Forest of Doom, they head south, catch a boat and cruse on up the coast. Meanwhile, the GM, who spent six hours carefully crafting an ambush by half-orc, half-owls, silently grinds his teeth as his blood-pressure skyrockets.

Not surprisingly, many GMs pride themselves at "adapting" to these decisions. Note the quotes. Instead of organically creating new conflicts in response to the player (what I'd consider true adaptation), the GM simply railroads the characters back into his pre-prepared story. In the above example, a sudden storm sinks the characters' ship. As they drag their waterlogged bodies to shore, the party finds itself lost in the Dark and Dangerous Forest of Doom (complete with impatiently waiting orc-owls).

Notice how the GM's reaction robs the characters' decision of any real meaning. No matter what they chose, they ended up ambushed in the forest.

However, railroading is not as simple as it appears. Clearly, blatant and obvious attempts at railroading are bad and should be avoided, but there are some railroading-like behaviors that actually improve the story. Let me explain.

Let's say the GM wants to introduce a new source of conflict. He decides that the Big Nefarious Bad Dude is going to try and kidnap an overly cute 5-year old who lives next door. The players will see the kidnapping in progress, thwart it, and thus get pulled into BNBD's Big Nefarious Plot. In his notebook, he jots down that the kidnapping will happen exactly at midnight tomorrow.

However, the players decide to hang out at a dwarven strip club until 3:00 a.m. Now, some GMs might let the kidnapping happen as scripted. BNBD nabs the girl while the characters are gone. They don't know anything about it. Sure, this avoids railroading--but it also kills the story. The characters never encounter BNBD, and that entire conflict disappears in a puff of smoke. (sure, you might create an acceptable story hook using the post-kidnapping, grief-stricken parents--but, for the sake of this example, lets ignore that option).

As an obvious alternative, just delay the kidnapping until the characters are on their way home. Midnight? 3:00 A.M.? What's the difference?

Is that railroading? Maybe. But I feel that important parts of the story should not happen off-scene. If the characters are going to be the protagonists, they need to be present at most (if not all) important scenes.

Also, I think there's a real difference here. In the D&DFoD example, the characters are forced into the GM's pre-scripted scene. In the BNBD example, the scene is simply delayed until a more-dramatically appropriate time. It could be delayed indefinitely. If the characters left town, the child would be safe until they returned. Indeed, the scene may never happen. However, as soon as an appropriately dramatically moment arrives, the girl gets nabbed.

A less-common form of pre-conflict decision is the old disease vs. cure argument. What do you do when the cure is just as bad as the disease?

Here the characters have a potential solution (or partial solution) to their problems, but it comes at a cost. These decisions usually focus on moral conundrums: a deal with the devil, a ruthless means marginally justified by the ends, or any other variation on this theme.

While I really enjoy throwing moral conundrums at my players, it must be used sparingly. First, it's hard to properly balance the two options. Too often, all the characters will unanimously agree that one course of action is clearly better than the other. The conundrum then degrades from a real decision to a mere frustration.

Ideally, I try to split the party, where some of the characters choose option A, and others want option B. This forces the characters to make a real decision, while also adding a juicy layer of intraparty conflict.

And remember, a continuous stream of moral dilemmas may make the game feel too heavy, or too frustrating. Besides, anything becomes boring when repeated too often.

One last warning. Decisions are good, but don't let the players spend all their time planning. Some players get so wrapped up in making the decision, they never get around to the actual story.

Mid-Scene Decisions

These decisions occur in the middle of scene. They can be incredibly powerful, and lead to strong stories. However, they're the hardest to orchestrate.

For example, the characters could be faced with a lumbering hoard of mind-controlled soccer moms. Do they protect themselves and the other shoppers at the Uptown Mall by grinding the hoard into a slurry of bone and red goo? Or do they try to free the moms from the preternatural domination (a risker but less messy approach).

Mid-scene decisions force the characters to react in real time. They don't have the luxury of sitting back and discussing the issue. The soccer moms are battering their way into the food court, and the characters must make a decision NOW!

Most of the time, these decisions emerge naturally from play. The old "those who fall behind get left behind" conundrum. Two characters are dying, and you only have one potion of healing left. Life's rough that way.

Sometimes, mid-scene decisions occur because the players uncover new information in the middle of a conflict. Any information that changes the nature of the conflict can force the players to make new decisions on-the-fly. Do they continue with their existing plan, or do they change course to either take advantage of a new opportunity or avoid a new obstacle.

Again, it's often hard to tune this new information properly. Often, the correct course of action is clear. In this case, it's really just a twist. Nothing wrong with that. Many excellent stories contain surprises and twists. But, it's not a decision that matters.

Post-Scene Decisions

While not as common, I think post-conflict decisions could be one of the most effective tools in the GM's toolkit. Like the mid-scene decisions, these decisions are created when the characters gain new information during a scene. Unlike the mid-scene decisions; however, the information does not directly affect the current conflict. Rather, the information will cause the characters to make some decision after the current scene has ended.

Again, a story should progress as follows:

  • GM introduces conflict
  • Players react to the conflict
  • GM reacts to the players' actions by introducing new conflict
  • Players react to the new conflict
  • Shampoo. Rinse. Repeat.

Notice how these decisions fit nicely into that framework.

Also, mid-scene decisions often involve a dramatic moral quandary. The post-scene decisions can be more flexible. Almost any sort of clues create a post-scene decision. A mysterious stranger is spotted lurking in the shadows during the big fight scene. Who is he? Friend? Foe? What can the characters do to find out?

The characters must first interpret the clue, and then they must decide how the clue will impact future actions. Ideally, this will make the characters proactive, driving them to actively seek out more information.

Proactive characters are, by definition, not following the GM's script. They are charting their own course thought the story. And the GM (and by extension, the antagonists) are reacting to the players. This is ideal, but often hard to achieve.

Note that post-scene decisions require multi-layered scenes. A (long) while ago, I suggested that all scenes should do at least two things (here). It's not just a fight. It's not just a clue. It's a clue revealed during a fight (or as the result of a fight).

Finally, pre-scene and post-scene decisions are largely opposite sides of the same coin. Both occur between scenes. As such, the amount of time spent deliberating and plotting should be kept to a minimum (pacing issues are really beyond the scope of this essay, but the bulk of the game time should be spent in actual scenes dealing with real combat). I think the pre- and post-scene decisions are subtly different, however.

Pre-scene decisions focus on the upcoming scene. The decision focuses on how the characters will achieve some goal. Post-scene decisions focus on what the characters will do with a new piece of information. Of course, once the characters address the what-question, they will naturally turn to the how-question.

In many ways, the transition from post-scene to pre-scene decisions represents a switch from strategic to tactical planning. Obviously, strategic decisions will have a larger impact on the game. Post-scene decisions therefore matter more than pre-scene decisions (at least, according to my definitions).

But, tactical decisions are important too. They are often vital for setting the story's tone or atmosphere. Do the characters sneak in, or do they kick in the front door? Either way, they will likely rescue the princess. But you end up with two, very different stories.

Well, that's the basics. There are definitely some rough edges on this idea. As always, let me know what you think.


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Another piece of the GM puzzle

Over the course of this blog, I've spent a lot of verbiage exploring the role of a GM in a story-based RPG. The general movement in narrative games is to reduce or completely eliminate the GM. However, I feel the GM plays a vital role in story creation--or at least in the creation of the stories that interest me.

For a brief overview, check out any of these essays: Controlling Players, Eyes and Ears, Character Integrity, Impossible Things, Story is Structure and My Original Manifesto.

Ironically, my last essay (on player-generated conflict) helped me better explore the borders of the GM's role. As I thought about the issues more, I've come up with another central role that the GM plays. The GM introduces and manages conflict.

OK, it's not really a new idea. I've picked at the edges for a while now, and it seems pretty obvious. But, the implications are not so straight forward. I'm really talking about drawing a line between introducing conflict and creating the plot. GMs should introduce conflict, while the plot should emerge from the interactions between the players and the GM. The GM introduces a bit of conflict. The characters respond. The GM then responds to the characters' actions by either introducing new conflicts or causing the existing conflicts to evolve. Meanwhile, the plot grows organically.

The difference between plot and conflict may seem overly subtile, but I think it's important. Saying that the GM creates the plot assumes that the GM knows how the players will respond--or, worse yet, that the characters' responses ultimately do not matter. The GM can plan it all out (more or less) in advance. The plot will continue on its expected course regardless of what the characters do.

If we are going to create real stories at the table, the characters must make real decisions that have real effects on the game. If the GM creates the plot, then the story is already written, and the group is just acting out his script. Don't get me wrong, a lot of interesting games follow this model. But, it's not really a story, or at least, not a communal story.

Now, if you've been paying attention, you may feel that my new emphasis on GM created conflict contradicts the advice I gave last time. True, my last essay largely encouraged players to explicitly design a central conflict for their characters, but that was the central conflict for a character arc. The GM should manage (most of) the conflict for the story's plot.

Stories often contain both character arcs and an overall plot. An in-depth description is beyond the scope of this essay; however, there are a lot of good writing references that cover both. Briefly, a character arc focuses on how a particular character changes and develops during the story. While the plot focuses on the central conflict that binds all the characters together. Of course, there's some overlap between the two, and each one will affect the other.

So, I'm not suggesting that the GM is the sole source of conflict. Players can and should introduce their own conflicts. Most of these will become minor subplots. Some may grown and develop into major conflicts in their own right. Every once in a while, one might even take over the story, becoming the plot's central conflict. That's OK. The GM should follow the story where it leads. But, the GM is responsible for making sure that the story has a sufficient level of conflict. That often means introducing new conflicts, but can also involve managing those conflicts already brought to the table.

Furthermore, while a player might introduce an interesting antagonist. The GM is ultimately responsible for breathing life into the NPC. He must weave it into the plot, making it an important part of the story.

The GM must also make sure that the conflicts actually interest the players. Hopefully players have done their part, indicating their desires through flags during character creation and in their character's back-story. Note: this is a bit of a balancing act. The character's skills and abilities usually indicate those things the player wants the character to succeed at. These represent the characters' strengths and they should be a part of the story, but they're often not good sources of conflict.

Imagine a sword-master character. Clearly the player wants the character to win sword-fights. And the character should be given ample opportunity to excel at swordplay. But fencing-based conflicts are unlikely to be very interesting. Either the character will win easily (and there is no real conflict), or the character will face a steady stream of sword-masters with equal or greater skill. The character's identity as a sword-master will largely be destroyed if everyone he meets has an equal or greater mastery of the blade. It's probably best to keep major challenges to the player's key abilities for a climatic encounter.

Instead, conflicts usually come from the characters' weaknesses and failures. The GM should create conflicts that play off the characters' strengths (giving them a chance to shine in the spotlight) while forcing them to confront their weaknesses.

And remember, the conflict needs to engage the character as well as the player. Unfortunately, characters are harder to predict, since a lot of the characters' personalities are developed in play. Still, the GM must introduce conflicts that the characters feel passionately about. And these conflicts must adequately challenge the characters. If the players can just walk away, then it's not a good conflict (or, at least, it's not their conflict). And if the conflict is little more than a speed bump, then it's just not story-worthy.

Finally, the conflict must give the characters frequent opportunities to make meaningful decisions--decisions that will influence the plot's final shape. If the conflict only has one good solution, then the GM is really creating the plot, not just introducing conflict.

Ironically, having an overly-challenging conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Many interesting stories come from characters facing impossible odds. It's OK for the PCs to retreat on occasion. Let them hide away and lick their wounds. Send them out on quests for allies or magical relics that will level the playing field. After all, nothing makes you hate the bad guys more than getting your ass whooped.

Not surprisingly, these are largely the same criteria I discussed in the essay on character conflict.

After all this, I feel that the GM's role is solidifying in my mind. They have two main functions: providing structure and managing conflict. They also have a number of secondary roles, like creating and maintaining the story's atmosphere, acting as the characters' eyes and ears, and running the NPCs. While these lesser aspects are important to a successful story, they don't compare to the first two.

In fact, conflict is really part of the story's structure. Introducing and managing conflict, controlling the story's pace, maintaining consistency and managing the stories mysteries--all of these are part of maintaining a sound structure. In many ways, by focusing on the difference between introducing conflict and creating plot, I am just adding tighter restrictions on a previously identified role. Well, I can live with that.