Saturday, 14 March 2015

I know that guy!

The appearance of a well-known character - particularly a villain - provokes a strong response from the audience and an anticipation for what their appearance means for the story. Used carefully, this can be a good shortcut to investment in the proceedings but it also runs the risk of over time turning established characters into caricature of themselves. The simplest illustration of this is with characters from sketch shows such as the Fast Show. They appear on screen and the audience knows that before long they are going to spout their catchphrase at which point the viewer will laugh. It is an almost Pavlovian response - a release of the anticipation regardless of how funny the preceding sketch may have been and it erodes the value of the character by robbing them of any depth.

In a story the effect is less obvious, but potentially more of a problem. Part of a dramatic scene is the tension of not knowing how events are going to unfold and a known character can very quickly bleed any uncertainty away. The characters may be in danger, but of course The Hero is going to survive. The scene is no longer about whether the characters will survive; it is about how they will survive. If the character has a history of surviving by being cocky and lucky then that question is answered too and the audience is left waiting for the action to go through the usual motions.

That isn't to say this is a bad thing. The A Team, for example, survived through five seasons by rarely deviating from an identical formula (get job, meet badguys, be captured, build implausible device, win). In Castle you can usually identify the murderer in any given episode by noting the character introduced in a particular (small) time window. The episodes of shows like these have a familiarity which makes them very easy to watch however they buy that familiarity by discarding any genuine tension and have to work hard in other areas to ensure they continue to draw in the audience despite being increasingly predictable.

A roleplaying game needs to earn the players' attention by giving them the opportunity to succeed at something and overcome an obstacle. The simplest way to generate tension is by putting the characters in some kind of danger which they can fight to overcome. While there is usually the unspoken agreement that the gamesmaster is not actively trying to kill the players (it is hardly a challenge to kill a PC when you control every last variable in a game world) it is important for everyone to believe a total party kill is a possible outcome to an encounter, however unlikely (and undesirable) else the challenge is robbed of its teeth. Equally, the players need to be able to win. While the definition of "win" is very variable depending on the game and the story, to have value it needs to be earned through the players' decisions and actions rather than some Deus Ex Machina.

The exception to this is the occasional dramatic encounter, when the odds can be completely out of balance and the world is rigged to ensure a particular outcome. This device needs to be used sparingly as it is non-interactive which doesn't fit well with the most basic premise of a roleplaying game as the players' story and it needs to be pretty obvious what is going on so it doesn't look like the GM has intervened to fix a botched normal encounter.

This brings us back to the characters - and particularly the villains. In a recent Star Wars game I had a Dark Jedi (Inquisitor Ceres) turn up with all the usual Imperial pomp and ceremony. She scared the living daylights out of the players because I managed to balance the known (she was described in a very Vader-esque way and happily Force Choked an important bureaucrat, demonstrating her own power on a number of levels) with the unknown (she wasn't actually Vader).

For this mission I had considered using Vader himself. It would have been an easy switch but I think it would have detracted from the situation as the players (all very capable and experienced gamers) would have inevitably calculated his involvement in the forthcoming scenes. They were low level so they knew Vader was well beyond anything they could sensibly face in a real encounter therefore either he wasn't going to confront them directly (and his appearance on-world was a cheap scare tactic), or he would show up in a dramatic encounter where they weren't in any real risk of being killed by him. By using an unknown Dark Jedi I removed this safety net and generated fear because they didn't how powerful she was and therefore couldn't guess her exact role in the story. Basically (in the words of the Jedi player) they might have to face her.

The mission ended with the evacuation of a Rebel base as the players held back a horde of stormtroopers. Despite the stormtroopers being about as effective as they were in the films (not my finest moment) the players still chose to withdraw and flee for space when Ceres turned up which made for a far cooler ending than if I had forced them to leave by putting an insurmountable obstacle in their way (if Vader had occupied the same role).

I wish I could say I'd thought all this through in advance, but I was lucky. The effect was pronounced though - the players spent the mission operating under a sense of urgency because the Empire was coming and when it arrived it would be under the command of a terrifying Force-wielding maniac who would be actively gunning for them. The character list is an important part of the gamesmaster's toolset but learning how exactly those tools can be used for different effects is fascinating.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Map Quest 1

I find maps an important part of writing. I need to understand the space in which the story is taking place as the locale is an important part of the decision-making process for the characters, shaping their plans and stopping them accidentally doing something truly stupid.

A map is useful to the players for the same reason and can lead the story in new and interesting directions as geography may suggest a new solution to a problem. Imagine trying to defend a village - the enemy is marching from the east. We could defend the walls, however studying the map shows there are only so many routes one can march a body of troops. If they are not carrying all their supplies, instead living from the land a little that removes more options. If we collapse trees in these areas, we'll be pretty sure they will march through this pass in which there is another village which owes us a favour. How about we head there, take over the inn and fill the soldiers' ale with something poisonous? This kind of thinking can only happen if the players have enough information about the world to plan ahead but it can lead to the story taking a life of its own; one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of being a GM.

I'm not alone in my love of maps. Tolkien was a fan of letting a map provide a framework to his story as were C.S. Lewis and many others. Fortunately, I also enjoy drawing them. I've always sketched in pen or pencil and I find the act of drawing an area a good way to think about what might happen within it. Over the last few years I have been looking for a comfortable way to draw maps electronically so I can save, undo and print multiple copies easily. It is the reason I originally bought an iPad, and why recently I've been interested in the Pencil by FiftyThree. The Pencil is a lovely piece of kit, with a great feel and the closest I've come so far to using a pen and a sketchbook. I'm going to be using it to draw the maps I need for my Legend of the Five Rings game and I'm hoping that as I learn the tool I will get some good results.

In the meantime, behold the first map.

Rokugan map

If you know your Rokugan geography it's in that big empty area in the north west Crane lands, east of Zakyo Toshi. The details are particular to my own campaign world although the scale matches at least some of the Rokugan maps I've seen.

I've used the original version of this map to calculate travel times, which has been important for helping the party arrive at Winter Court before the snow made travel impossible, and has helped me map out plausible troop and supply movements so enemies and allies do not suddenly have access to unexplained resources. Many of these things will probably not be noticed, but they help make the world seem credible and solid and they also help me keep track of who is doing what and why, which is important when it comes to improvisation.

Friday, 7 November 2014

The big dice roll

Anyone who has played a tabletop roleplaying game has experienced that thrilling moment when excitement and utter terror crash together. That moment when all the planning and hard work comes together and there is a reckoning. When empires rise and kingdoms fall. I mean, of course, the time when you have to pick up the dice and roll them.

Dice are a simple device which can be modelled with probability (we all know the reality that dice are evil and vindictive, taking favourites and delighting in crushing dreams but that is a different post) and the results predicted with statistics. A skilled combat character (skilled by the numbers, ignoring the skill of the player) tends to do consistently well in combat situations, however if your experiences are anything like mine an equally skilled social or artistic character often a wildly varying rate of success - miraculous achievements and dismal failures appearing with alarming regularity. So why is there this difference? There are two main effects at play and brace yourself because there is going to be a little maths involved.

Firstly, there is the volume of dice rolls. The distribution of results from a die will tend towards the statistical prediction as the number of independent rolls increase. That is to say, if you roll a fair die once or twice you could get anything. If you roll it dozens of times you're likely to get a roughly equal number of each result. The more times you roll, the more even your results will be. To put it in more useful gaming terms, rolling lots of dice makes the outcome far more predictable.

In all RPG systems I have played, pretty much every action in a combat encounter requires some dice to be rolled. An entire social encounter (and especially a performance) is often modelled as a single roll. Couple this with combat usually taking the lion's share of the game time and you have vastly more combat dice being thrown than non-combat dice. The combat character gets the whole spectrum of results, with less riding on each individual roll so bad rolls can be countered with good. Eventually the character's skill pushes the average towards success. The non-combat character is at the mercy of the dice as they are usually stuck with their single roll, good or bad with the effect being amplified by the inherent variance in the system being played, which is to say that the outcome is far more based on luck.

Secondly, there are the mechanics available to player to give themselves an edge. In combat a character can fight defensively, move to higher ground, power attack, change stance and so on and used correctly all of these options change the rolls to sway things in their favour. The options available to the non-combat character are typically few and far between making it harder to take advantage of changing circumstances. This also makes the non-combat character less engaging as there are fewer choices to be made when using their primary skill.

Both of these are a reflection of combat mechanics being more fully developed than social mechanics. If the game is combat-focused that doesn't matter too much, however my current game is focused on social encounters so I need a way to redress this balance.

A simple change is to have variable results depending on the dice. Missed the target number by five? Your performance was good but had mistakes. This works nicely when the non-combat encounters are not too important but unless the GM is very clear up front what will happen at different thresholds it is a bit vague and on its own it doesn't address inconsistency in the character's results or create more engaging mechanics to give the players more control.

I also want to avoided simply rolling more dice per minute. Although there is a lot to be learned from comparing the two, I think social encounters deserve to be treated differently to combat encounters. They are slower, with a longer burn-in time and more scope for laying foundations before the final, all-important action takes place. That means awarding bonuses for preparation - both in avoiding failure and enhancing success.

My first major concern is to find a way to avoid catastrophic failure from an experienced performer. A singer has a skill level which represents their ability to start singing on demand. If they are to perform at an important event they are unlikely to just wing it, instead practising to reduce the risk of failure. I'm modelling this by awarding static dice modifiers to players who spend time practising - essentially the end performance is easier because of the preparation. To get the desired effect, you really need to set the difficulty of the attempted performance at the beginning of the practice period as the aim is to make it more likely the character will succeed when the dice are rolled, not just move the same variance to higher numbers. A similar preparation for a social encounter might be to research the target's interests and pet peeves to avoid a faux pas.

I also want the players to be able to take actions to enhance their success - the equivalent of the combat modifiers. Pre-actions in a social situation would mean smaller activities which lead towards the intended goal. Trying to persuade a merchant to buy his products exclusively from your factory would be a hard check, but with the correct preparation it can become much easier. A character might do the merchant a series of favours first to create a strong relationship with them then conduct the negotiation in a relaxing environment whilst plying them with drink to slightly impair their judgement. An alternative approach would be to threaten the merchant then pay a contact to harass them over a period of days so they are distracted and sleep-deprived when the time comes to talk.

Both approaches have the character increasing their chance of success by taking minor actions in preparation which will give a numerical bonus in the final roll. The player is making decisions throughout as they are choosing their preparations and acting them out. The preparation also gives the opportunity to assess their opponent and the changing political battlefield. They might decide at any point that the final negotiation is a bad idea and try to pull out.

Allowing numerical advantages from preparation will not make many non-combat encounters significantly easier to overcome but I'm not going to increase the difficulty to compensate just yet. Game systems do not usually encourage preparation beyond perhaps setting a quick ambush so this is quite a shift in thinking and that will take time to embed but it should produce more engaging non-combat encounters driven by the players as well as giving them more control over the outcomes.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Gaps in the timeline

When starting a new game, how often to play is an important consideration. Personally, I'm a fan of playing weekly as developments are kept fresh in people's minds. A week is long enough for a player (or players) to talk and plan, but not long enough for an enthusiastic to grow too frustrated because they can't move things forward. Weekly games help players remember details such as the names of characters and locations and if the occasional session is missed the schedule is not pushed back by months. Playing weekly allows a "continuous TV serial" style of game. Sessions don't all have to be crammed with plot because there is are more coming along soon.

A slower schedule would have different strengths and weaknesses. A monthly game may breed more excitement for an individual session and can avoid cancellations as people prioritise playing higher. Playing monthly encourages more of a "cinema" style game with infrequent instalments, each of more importance to the whole. Each session needs to advance the plot while also giving all the players the space to play their characters. On the other hand, each session will likely be longer than a weekly game and has more time for the GM to prepare. Rather than being a continuous plot, a game with long gaps between sessions is likely to be written episodically. Everyone forgets details, so each session will need to be relatively self-contained so there is less to forget.

There isn't a "right" way of running a game and the decision will likely be taken on an entirely practical level based on everyone's availability. The danger comes when not taking the frequency into account when writing the game, or when circumstances force a change.

In between the excitement and adventure of beautifully crafted gaming sessions exists the tedium of real life and that has a habit of intruding on and disrupting the game. My group are all post-university (and hence in-work) age and lead busy lives. Consequently, our weekly game skips roughly one in five sessions. This isn't a problem when it is one a month, but it is all too common for us to go through a period of one session, two weeks off, another session, three weeks off. This is a sad, inevitable fact of getting older but results in the weekly game - written to be continuous - at times running monthly. The ongoing challenge is how to bridge those periods without re-writing into an episodic game (not that there is anything inherently wrong with an episodic game, but that would change the character of what I'm writing at the moment).

Big gaps mean forgotten details. Obvious things first - a recap helps everyone get back on track. Starting each session with a "previously on" sets the scene, highlights important details and neatly doubles as a signpost for the beginning of the session. Keeping good notes during a session is essential for this - there will always be times when you come to write the recap and you have no idea what a particular player did last time, regardless of how important it was.

Another good way to help people's memories along is with an NPC cheatsheet. For each plot arc I write my own sheet to help me remember names, motivations, personalities, physical traits and political allegiances. Next time I do this I'm going to produce a modified one for each of the players. This will help not only with remembering everyone - and because we're playing Legend of the Five Rings and we are not Japanese speakers, many of the names are complicated - but also be a starting point for their political manoeuvring as it will aid them visualise the courtly battlefield (as noted in Feedback a few weeks ago). A simple and obvious idea and one that I'm kicking myself for not doing earlier.

It's important to remember that characters have memories as well as players. A detail from two months ago in real time might be something experienced an hour ago for the character. Various mechanics exist for character memory (most of them similar to character deduction, or GM hints) however before reaching for the dice it is worth asking "what happens if they fail this?" If the objective is to bridge a perfectly reasonable gap in player memory a poor dice roll is going to lead to an unreasonable blocker to the story and frustration so maybe skip over the check entirely.

I don't want to completely rewrite the plot to something more episodic, but I am looking at ways to restructure what is going on to help keep things moving. A sequence played weekly can afford to be slow and have some false starts, but if those same sessions are less frequent it is very easy for that sequence to feel like it is taking forever - months in real time even though it's only two sessions of game time. I want to have plots which can be fast-forwarded when needed and have escape routes which I can use to temporarily "episodify" (not a word) the game when real life gets in the way.

Finally, I'm re-evaluating the experiences of the sessions themselves. Memorable NPCs stick in the memory (obviously) so what makes a memorable NPC? An outlandish character can certainly be memorable, but doesn't fit the character of the game so I'm working on enhancing the descriptions and interesting traits. The same is true for the locations. These are things that need to improve anyway and with a focus to that improvement I'm looking forward to seeing what happens.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Involving everyone

In any roleplaying game the living campaign world exists as a shared construct between the players and the gamesmater. There are only two ways to interact with this world - either via the GM or through discussions between the characters. Each game session is an ongoing dance as a player takes centre stage, performs their actions and moves aside to allow another player space to do something.

In a combat based game there is an in-built mechanic to facilitate this. The combat round divides time into few-second intervals and moves forward as each segment is completed, giving everyone a turn. Unfortunately no such abstration exists for a non-combat game which presents a challenge ensuring that all players get their time in the spotlight, especially since it is very possible the characters are in different places, doing entirely unrelated things and circumstances will naturally give a lot more promenance to some characters. This can leave others with little to do which can easily result in unengaged and disinterested players.

In my current game I've been breaking the day into three (morning, afternoon and evening) to give a similar structure to the combat rounds, giving everyone their turn for action. This approach has certainly helped me avoid forgetting anyone and has provided opportunities to switch focus between players during the session but is not enough on its own; I've been aware of an imbalance for some time and have been seeking a way to change it.

A purist would again say that the GM's job is not to be an entertainer, but it is definitely the GM's job to ensure that the game works for all present and if one or more of the players are being left out then the GM is failing in this task. It is also important to see the difference between an overly enthusiastic player monopolising the spotlight (a problem for all, but caused by the player) and the unfolding plot continually pushing one player forwards (which is caused by the GM and is up to him to stop it becoming a problem).

In an attempt to give everyone more and better quality time in the spotlight I've been trying to cut down on the daily minutiae - encounters which really don't go anywhere and just serve to consume time. Non-encounters have their place, building atmosphere and helping the characters feel part of the world, but they need to be saved for bulking out a player's game time when they have had an otherwise quiet session, not played out as routine.

I've also been looking closely at the plot. As well as changing the way I'm handling villains, I've been trying to move circumstances to the point where the players have something approaching a common goal. This will encourage the characters to talk to each other, allowing the players to interact with the world without the GM and can happen while another player is talking to an NPC - effectively creating another spotlight which magically increases the amount of time a player is engaged in the same length of session. The problem I've been having here is that while events may well be linked behind the scenes, that needs to somehow be uncovered before it makes any difference in the game sessions.

Fortunately, an unexpected (and insightful) move from one of the players solved this problem for me, finding linking information and joining some of the dots. This is my favourite kind of development as a GM as it wasn't a reveal handed to the players to move things forwards; it was an in-character idea that was followed through intelligently. By revealing the NPC's background his relevence to the plot was partially discovered which in turn uncovered more of the goings-on in the world. Importantly, it also shifted some of the key story activity to a new player which should help greatly in re-balancing the time in the spotlight and, coupled with less clutter in the sessions and (hopefully) more inter-character exchanges should help everyone be more a part of the game.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

GMing while tired

I would imagine most GMs have day jobs. Certainly, I'm yet to convince my players to pay my food and rent in exchange for trying to kill their characters each week. Over the years, I've played games on a Saturday afternoon / evening and always found them a drag as large parts of the only free day a week are consistently lost. For me, the only real option is playing on a week night and this inevitably means a game will sometimes clash with That Day at work. The day you've been hard at it from some stupid time in the morning, with no breaks and no lunch and you're already half asleep when stumbling to meet your group.

Like last night.

So what happens when you're feeling as dead as the zombies the PCs are slaying? Assuming the GM is experienced enough to hold the session together and not accidentally wipe out the party then chances are the worst that will happen is that he will lose control over what is going on.

Control in a roleplaying game is something that needs to be handled extremely delicately. There are entire posts to write about managing player freedom but the short version is that the players should be limited by the world (laws, social norms, etc), their characters (their skillset and the personalities they themselves have created) and their own imaginations - that is it. Mostly, these controls are exercised by the players themselves deciding on their course of action, not the GM limiting them.

The other control is initiative. Who is deciding what will happen next? Are the villains furthering their plans and forcing the PCs to react, or are the players putting their own schemes into play? The answer to this question determines to a certain extent who is controlling the story and will likely move around on a continuous scale over the course of a campaign. Done well (and not in an adversarial way - the players are not the enemy after all) this can be an exciting dynamic to a game as the players steal the initiative from their enemies by doing something clever and unexpected. This is why GMing tired is occasionally not a bad thing. You aren't as on the ball as normal and you're likely to be sitting back a bit and this can firmly hand the players the initiative.

With the players driving, you're likely to see unexpected change. This is not something the GM should fear. If the world is built properly with a rich background and well thought out NPCs with clear motivation (always know the motivation of an NPC if you want your world to make sense) it will survive contact with the players. It may look completely different afterwards, but at least you'll be able to see how and why it has changed and you'll have a good idea how the NPCs will react to it. Massive, unexpected change can be really exciting for the player and the GM and can conjure some of the most memorable moments in a campaign. The capacity for this to happen is a key difference between a roleplaying game and reading a book, or even collaborative storytelling and is something that should be embraced.

In the game last night, with me half asleep, the players had free reign to push their own agendas. As well as freedom from reacting to their enemies, NPCs were more agreeable than they might normally be and newly introduced characters were not as sharp they perhaps should have been. The result? A significant step towards raising an army to oppose an undead horde; creating a political ally who could swing the economic future of the region if handled correctly and making contact with an important source of information who has considerably more mouth than brains. Now, two of these are the result of the player's actions and they were likely to make them happen anyway. The third has (accidentally) introduced a very significant source of intelligence. If they work him properly this could lead the story in a new direction - as a GM this is something I find exciting, but there is no way a character with his personality would have been introduced deliberately.

Fortunately the personality in question is so obnoxious nobody wants to talk to him...

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Villains you hate

Having an adversary is a strong motivator. Tribalism, one of the most powerful and primal forces in the human psyche is basically an "us vs them" mentality which serves to bind a group together to a common goal or communal advancement. Tapping into it is easily done and can be an effective way of motivating a team as long as it doesn't get out of hand. First task is to define "us". This is the hard part, but just talking about an "us" is enough to get started as people like being considered part of the in-crowd. Next is to create a "them". This may be "everyone else" but is more effective if it is a particular group. At that point you can sit back and let things take their natural course. The positive outcome is the spirit of competition driving "us" to be better than "them". In all likelihood you will also find that "we" start to dismiss, dislike and act against "them" - not something you want to encourage in your team in an office but behaviour which helps when attempting to defeat an adversary.

Narratively, a good adversary is a powerful encouragement to the reader to emotionally invest in your tale. Sympathetic villains can work well, but for a real "them" reaction you need someone to hate. Roleplaying games can make this very easy. The Demon Lord, The Death Knight or The Lich start off as an unambiguous "them" to the players' "us" and all they need to do is be evil enough to demonstrate that they are a threat and the players will throw themselves into hunting and killing them (and taking their stuff, obviously).

This only works with certain styles of game. My current campaign is focused on social encounters and political manoeuvrings. There are few cartoonishly evil enemies, but there are very definitely villains. The most obvious are  already hated by their actions. They stand against the players on principal and are generally antagonistic at every opportunity. Another group has such a bad reputation that they are reviled despite having not actually done anything "on screen". Casting these factions as villains has been fun and I have one player who will accuse them of causing any and all bad events with no evidence whatsoever. Mission accomplished.

There are, however, other enemies out there. The clever ones who don't want to oppose, they want to win. They have done this by hiding in the shadows and striking in such a way that its not clear that they even exist. So far they have been successful enough that they haven't been revealed which is great for them but not so good narratively. I need to turn them into a known threat in order to make them a meaningful part of the story which means I need to somehow show the players that there is (at least) one hidden enemy and then, ideally, create a focus which can become a "them". At the same time I need to avoid devaluing them by having them fall into the common antagonist failures of over-reaching or collapse by internal treachery. Both of these cause the villains to lose rather than the heroes to win and robs the players of victory.

Until now I have been dropping clues into seemly unrelated encounters - a reoccurring detail here, someone knowing something they shouldn't there - which ties everything together and will either create a reveal or produce an "aha" moment at a later date. As this plotline comes to the fore, I need to escalate this threat without a cheap reveal. I have a story strand waiting in the wings which will raise the stakes nicely by making everything much more personal. At this stage I may need to alter some of the details to tie up some disparate plot elements and give the whole party something to hate together.

Not sure how I'm going to do that yet, but if I can use a "them" to also create an "us" I'll have solved another problem along the way. More on that another time.