Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Emotional Investment in Character & Story

In addition to keeping the holiday fires burning for my family, I’ve been playing a bit of Skyrim and reading and thinking about role-playing. There was an interesting post on Bethesda Softworks’ (creators of Skyrim) forums that talked about the failings of the writers of the game. It was pretty well thought out, but I couldn’t help but feel that the poster may have missed the intent of the game designers.

Like some tabletop RPGs where the GM is creating a world as a canvas on which the players can “paint” their stories, Skyrim is a sandbox-style game. The NPCs and events of the world, taken on their own, are somewhat flat. As various posters in the thread above noted, there are many examples of games where some player choice is sacrificed in favor of a more compelling story (as determined by the writers of the game.) But, in true sandbox style, it is up to players to discover what compels them in Skyrim.

This is the approach I’ve tried to take with my tabletop game as well. By having my players create some background information, and noting how they interact with and influence NPCs, I’m able to get a read on what they value in their characters, and in the story. The stuff they’re emotionally invested in. Of course this is much easier to do in a tabletop game than in a CRPG. But I think it’s one of the keys to a successful campaign.

Jared von Hindman, who writes for WotC in various forms recently posted an article on character development, and some of the differences and connections between the game-mechanical aspects of characters, and the emotional investment in story I’m talking about here.
There your characters are, living out a story, which is presented by the DM. Yet those characters are living out a story that, if TVTropes has taught us anything, often follows certain narrative imperatives. Stories have power. A story told enough times can reshape the world. Your adventuring party is creating a story, touching elements of older, darker stories that they might never see the end of because that's not their story.
— Jared von Hindman
As a GM, I’m creating stories in my campaign that are independent of the characters, yet may be influenced by them. Oftentimes, as von Hindman says, there is a certain narrative imperative to the story that creates an informal agreement between players and GMs, and the campaign will, for a time, follow a certain path. This is, to some extent, a matter of convenience for both players and GMs. We have a limited time in which to play, and a certain amount of narrative imperative keeps the game in a context that provides the illusion of full freedom of choice within a realm that is manageable by a GM (who most likely has a job, family, and other commitments that need attention.)

Ultimately though, what will make the campaign work is the emotional investment of players in their characters, their characters’ stories, and in the stories of those around them. Balancing this with game mechanics, the dynamics of individual game sessions (influenced by factors like attendance, distractions, and player capabilities, to name just a few), and maintaining a sense of continuity, is what keeps the campaign juggling-act such a challenge.

So that’s my goal for 2012. To see if I can engineer a successful combination of these factors, in hopes that they’ll foster a greater emotional involvement for my players in both their characters and in the campaign. If you have any suggestions on how I might be better able to do that, or if you think I should try another direction entirely, please let me know!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Two Styles of Play

David Peterson's Mouse Guard
I've visited this issue several times in the short run of this blog, so I hope you're not bored with it. I find it fascinating. In short, there seem to be two major styles of play employed by those I game with:
  1. These players are focused on the game-mechanical aspects of their characters and measure their success by additional mechanics enabled. 
  2. These players focus on the story, both of their character (background) and achievements in the campaign.
Of course I'm simplifying this radically to make the point. In general, younger players tend to be #1's, while older players are more likely to be #2's. I play with more younger players than old. The ratio is about 3:1. Players assume characteristics of the other style at times.

My theory is that the younger players are more likely to have grown up with CRPGs, which focus on mechanics as a metric for character advancement, and tend to have less-personal stories. Older players are more likely to have played table-top RPGs first, and may have branched out to CRPGs.

This all makes for an interesting challenge as a GM. Some of my players get an immense amount of their game satisfaction from tracking progress, advancing capabilities, and poring over rules to find game-mechanical advantages for their characters. Others are daunted by this level of detail, find it a burden, or would happily remain oblivious to it. Games like CRPGs and 4e D&D put a lot of burden on the player to make sound game-mechanical choices in order to keep pace with the encounters the game provides. These games are predicated on the idea of character/challenge advancement.

So, as a GM I get the benefit of a system that empowers my players to define a lot of the rules that they'll be using (as a subset of the gamut of game rules), and puts the utilization of those rules in their hands. However, I am then burdened by the task of generating encounters that challenge the capabilities of these characters. Players expect that opportunities to use these capabilities will arise, and are usually disappointed when they do not. The knife has two edges.

WotC's 4e D&D
For those players who are content to focus on story or setting, I can easily sketch rich outlines that they then fill out with the results of their choices. Granted, these players assume that I will do so in a fair and impartial way. They are required to trust that I will do so, and I am bound to honor that trust. Anything less leads to disaster, as I'm sure anyone who played an RPG in middle school, or high school experienced first hand!

So, I'm sitting here with this knife in hand (Not literally. It's the figurative knife of modern game rules that make my life easy as a GM, as well as complicated.) And I'm wondering if there is a way to carve out a system that works for both styles of play?

What would you do if your favorite campaign was run using two different rule sets? If, for example, one session was a story-based system like the Mouse Guard RPG, while the following session used something more mechanical like 4e D&D? That's just a crazy idea I threw out. I don't have an answer yet, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Skyrim on the Tabletop, Pt 1

A Nord from Bethesda's Skyrim
The trouble with creating your own game rules is that creating a good game is much harder than it looks. My poor Friday night group has been subjected to several iterations of game rules, published and (mostly) unpublished, and yet they still turn out each month. I think I do a good-enough job of creating an interesting setting, and therefore they’re willing to put up with the eccentricities of my house rules.

My latest wild hair was inspired by the CRPG, Skyrim. Aside from the racial components, the characters are defined by three attributes and eighteen skills. This seems like an endearingly sleek setup, yet there are delicious complexities hidden within. Each of the skills has a tree of perks that may be unlocked, that give the character a unique flavor. I found myself wondering what a tabletop version of the game might look like. Green Ronin did it with Dragon Age, so why couldn’t something similar be done with Skyrim? (Keep in mind, this is all very sketchy at this point. More brainstorming than anything else.) What follows is influenced by Skyrim, 4e D&D, and my own house rules.

At 1st level you have 8 pts to distribute between the attributes of Health, Lore, Combat, and Agility (Strength, Constitution, and the other 4e attributes are not used). You may not put more than 5 points into any one attribute per level. After that, at each even-numbered level you gain 2 pts, and each odd-numbered level you gain 3 pts. That number becomes your bonus to d20 rolls for skill checks (and/or attacks) based on those attributes. In addition, you use those points in the skill trees to select specific talents or capabilities.

Example: A first level character might put 5 pts in Combat. Specifically, 2 pts in Block (unlocking the parry and small shield perks), 1 pt in Heavy Armor (unlocking the chainmail perk), and 2 pts in One-handed melee (unlocking d4 and d6 weapons such as daggers and short swords).

Fighting with a short sword (proficiency bonus +3), and adding the +5 for Combat proficiency, the player would add +8 when rolling to hit with a d20.

Combat (Combat Points) — AC
Health (Hit Points) Start with 20 — FORT
Lore (Magic/Knowledge Points) — WILL
Stealth (Stealth Points) — REFL


Athletics (Initiative +1, +2, +3, +4)
Block (Parry, shields, sm, md, lg)
Endurance (Defender Aura)
Heavy Armor (Chain +5, scale +6, plate +8)
Martial Arts
One-handed melee (Weapons, d4, d6, d8)
Ranged (Weapons: d4, d6, d8, d10)
Smithing (Make armor, 5, 6, 8, or weapons, d4, d6, d8, d10, d12)
Two-handed melee (Weapons, 2d4, d10, d12)

Alchemy (Make potions or poisons, d4, d6, d8, d10, d12)
Arcane (Conjuration, Arcana)
Crafting (Non-weapon item, non-magical, +1, +2, +3)
Divine (Restoration, Arcana)
Elemental (Destruction, Arcana)
Primal (Alteration, Arcana)
Psionic (Enchanting, Arcana)
Shadow (Illusion, Arcana)

Acrobatics (Agility, Balance)
Light Armor (hide +2, leather +3, studded leather +4)
Sneak (Including Move Quietly, Hide in Shadows, Back Stab, Sneak Attack)
Speech (Including Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, & Streetwise)
Thievery (Including Lockpicking & Pickpocket)

I've roughed in some basic perks above, but imagine extending those with some of the options from Skyrim, feats from D&D, or the combat options I derived from 4e that I use in my house rules. In my current system, players build their attack powers on the fly using the following menu of options and a point budget based on the character's level.

Weapon-based powers (1pt each):
The available attack powers are as follows ({M} indicates a melee power, {R} a ranged power, and {W} indicates a power useable both ways.)

All weapon users gain the following powers by default:
{W} 1 die damage (die-type based on weapon equipped)
{M} Grab (target restrained)
{M} Knock Prone (no move)

Additional attack powers may be selected from the following list:

{M} Back Stab — Minor Action
Trigger: You make a melee attack roll against an adjacent enemy using a light blade. The enemy must be granting combat advantage to you.
Effect: The enemy takes 1 die damage (weapon) + extra damage, based on level, if the attack hits.

{M} Blindside (gain combat advantage)

{M} Cleave (make a secondary melee attack against an additional target; target must be adjacent to attacker)

{M} Defender Aura — Minor Action
You project an aura 1 that lasts until you end it as a minor action or until you fall unconscious. While in the aura, any enemy takes a -2 penalty to attack rolls when it makes an attack that does not include among its targets either you or an ally of yours who has this aura active.

If an enemy subject to your defender aura either shifts or makes an attack that targets an ally of yours but not you or an ally who has an active defender aura, then you may make the following opportunity attack (range: melee 1):
Target: The triggering enemy
Effect: The target takes weapon damage equal to 3 + extra damage, based on level.

{M} Disarm (no attack)

{R} Favored Enemy — Minor Action
You can designate the nearest enemy to you that you can see as your favored enemy. You can designate one enemy at a time. The favored enemy effect remains active until the end of the encounter, until the enemy is defeated, or until you designate a different target as your favored enemy. If you can make multiple attacks in a round, you decide which attack to apply the extra damage to after all the attacks are rolled. If you have dealt Favored Enemy damage since the start of your turn, you cannot deal it again until the start of your next turn.
Target: The designated enemy
Effect: The target takes extra weapon damage if the attack hits equal to 3 + extra damage, based on level.

{W} Fusillade (no sense)

{R} Hit and Run (shift a number of squares equal to 1 + Wisdom modifier)

{M} Intimidating Charge (when you charge, target suffers -2 on next attack)

{M} Press (push target 1 square and shift into the space that the target occupied)

{R} Sneak Attack — Minor Action
Trigger: You make a ranged attack roll against an enemy using a light blade, a hand crossbow, a shortbow, or a sling. You must be hidden from that enemy (make a Stealth check opposed by the passive Perception of the enemy. If the Stealth check succeeds, you are hidden from that enemy until the end of your turn or until you attack.)
Effect: The enemy takes 1 die damage (weapon) + extra damage, based on level, if the attack hits.

{M} Switch Positions (exchange positions with adjacent target)

{W} Tumble Past (shift 1 square)

{R} Volley Fire (make a secondary ranged attack against an additional target; target must be adjacent to, or the same as original target. Special: You can use this option only once per round. Only useable with a “load free” weapon.)

{R} Vulnerable Prey (when target has no adjacent allies, target suffers -2 on next attack)

Of course, there are a lot of questions to be answered about how this might work, but I hope to expand on the idea in future posts. As always, your insights are welcome!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Thank You, Dave

A couple of years ago I was verging on an episode of game master burnout. Running games, but not really getting any chances to play. I messed around with CRPGs and various MMOs, but I missed the easygoing nature of the tabletop. I decided I’d need to take a chance on an entirely new gaming group. I joined a D&D meetup list online and found a guy looking to start a game that sounded like it was a good fit. We both ended up at our FLGS on the same date, but for a different event. We touched base, and agreed that we’d get together. At the event I met another couple who were fun to play with, and connected them with the new game as well.

Dave was the game master, getting back into D&D after a long layoff. He brought a tremendous energy, a deep homebrew setting, and a friendly vibe to the table. Eventually, we became a group. Dave, Sarah, Andrew, Adam, Bob, and I. We had a great time. But, eventually Dave found himself in the same boat I had been in a few months earlier. I added another group to my campaign to get Dave some playing time, but the commitments of developing his own homebrew setting were outweighing the available time that Dave had, so we decided to shutter the campaign.

After a bit of negotiation we decided to go with the Dark Sun setting to take a little bit of the labor out of the creation part for Dave. Andrew and Sarah moved, and the group changed a bit. But Dave still brought his enthusiasm and energy to the game. Being a creative guy, Dave refused to settle for the easy route with Dark Sun, and had soon created his own town in the setting, and a bunch of new plot elements. We had a lot of fun with it. As our characters leveled up, we discovered things about 4e D&D that were less than satisfying to us. We chugged through it. There were some epic encounters and memorable NPCs. Dave started talking about winding up the campaign by year’s end, and revisiting his original setting concept.

So, yesterday we played an all-day Dark Sun D&D marathon. The like of which I haven’t played in since high school. Dave and his wife organized meals and gaming like the gracious hosts they’ve been for so many sessions before, but on an epic scale. The final fight was a great challenge, and pushed our characters to their limits. It was perfect.

Thank you, Dave. For all the work you’ve put in over the last few years on these campaigns. Thank you for inviting me to your table, and into your home. Thanks also for gathering a great group of people to game with, and keeping us gaming together with your creativity and generous spirit. Thank you for pursuing your gaming interests towards the next campaign you’re planning, and inviting me to participate in that as well.

A couple of years ago I was verging on an episode of game master burnout. Running games, but not really getting any chances to play. Thank you Dave for giving me the chance to play. But more important, thank you for reminding me why I play. To spend time with friends at the tabletop, laughing and telling stories and having a great time. And thanks to Sarah, Andrew, Adam, Bob, Neil, Aaron, and the other folks who’ve wandered in and out of the Dave’s campaigns. I hope we get more chances to play together in the future!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Out of the Cave

Man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
- William Blake

It’s pretty easy to get tunnel vision while playing in or preparing for an RPG session. We are constrained in various ways by the rules we choose, the story to be told, the clich├ęs of genre that dictate the common language of fantasy, or whatever milieu we may have selected for our game. We sit in our caves and draw upon the walls with chalk and charcoal, telling stories by firelight. But there is a whole world of gaming out there. A million caves where a million tales are being told. And, like the million monkeys with their million typewriters, a few Shakespearean epics are being written.

Whether it is a plot, or a rule system. An ideal game mechanic, or the most satisfying narrative twist. It is out there waiting to be discovered if we are open to it. One of my art teachers in college, Richie Kehl always urged us to look at stuff with a naive, or innocent eye. One of my favorite experiences in his class was a multi-hour barrage of imagery shown so fast, you were soon unable to put names to what you were seeing, and saw only shape and color. Looking at games and game rules in a similar way requires some significant effort. Acquiring and reading game rules is a labor of obsessive love. I would be the first to admit I don’t really have the patience for it. But I’m slowly doing it anyway. Because I’m curious, after decades of gaming, about what else is out there. Beyond my cave.

Over the last few years I’ve gotten active in my local RPG community, and online, to connect with others via a hobby that I’ve found entertaining and fulfilling since I first discovered it. That the hobby still holds me in its spell is testament to the power of gaming. But I returned to gaming with renewed fervor a few years ago when I found that I was becoming isolated and sad. I was looking for a cooperative social outlet (and wasn’t working at a daily job.) I missed being part of a team. It has been a rich and rewarding experience. I’ve been more experimental in my gaming, and willing to game with people I didn’t know. I’ve learned new games and met new people.

I’ve always kept myself open for surprises. I don’t plot and plan.
-Steven Spielberg

As I’ve played more, I’ve tried to be more open to change. I’ve honed my session notes to a few pages, and try to listen to my players for cues on where the game should go. When playing I’ve tried to add creatively to the worlds I’ve been invited to explore, helping the GM define the place (and hopefully making it richer for everyone involved.) When creating characters, I’m not usually going to spend as much time on the mechanics of how, as I am the mysteries of why. But I’m open to discovering the answers to those mysteries in the run of play.

So now I find myself thrown back into the world of 9-to-5 work. Gaming, instead of being the core cooperative experience of my week, is a luxury. An option. I’m really enjoying the work. (I had the odd experience last week of putting in a full day, then racing to my FLGS for the weekly D&D Encounters  session. I enjoyed both in equal measure, for entirely different reasons.)

Life is something that, to a certain extent, can’t really be plotted or planned. You surf the wave of experiences and sometimes you lose your balance, sometimes you wipeout, and sometimes you hang ten and rip it all up. The wave’s a little different today. I’m fighting for balance, and looking ahead to see what opportunities might present themselves. I’m trying to remain open for surprises, to keep an innocent eye on what I see.

How does your gaming fit into your life, and what priority to give it?