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Conceptualizing Monsters

October 28, 2014

Monsters!  They show up in many RPGS – including sci-fi.  What makes a good monster?  Well, it depends on the role that the monster fills in play:

True Monsters – Monsters that induce fear and revulsion

Enemies – Monsters that exist to be fought or defeated

Aliens – Sentients whose interactions in play are primarily to highlight a completely alien way of thinking

People – In many cases the monsters are just sentients of a different species that operate more or less as any other characters world.

Now, be aware, that many times in RPGs monsters are described a certain way, but actually play out in a very different way – take the classic vampire.  In many games, vampires are described as True Monsters, but in play turn out to be simply Enemies or People.

True Monsters

A True Monster is not something to be fought – it’s something to be escaped.  To be sure, much of the media that involves True Monsters may have people trying to fight or overcome it at the end, but it’s the most desperate of victories – it’s not like anyone goes in thinking the odds are anywhere close to on their side.  

This is not a matter of stats and math – it’s a matter of the monster has to have invoked two feelings in the audience (in this case, the players) to really be a True Monster:

Helplessness or Vulnerability

What makes it feel desperate is that you pretty much feel like you don’t have any tools or methods that will work.  And that you’re never safe.

Horror stories usually do this through showing that the monster is either immune, doesn’t die, or has a plan already in place for anything you might do.  The monster just “shows up” in places – behind you, in the car, under your bed, even if you’re in a locked room, etc.

Revulsion

Revulsion can be physical, emotional, and/or mental.  Physical revulsion is often gross looking monsters, but also in things like body horror where the monster invades your body or transforms it.  Emotional and mental revulsion can be a highly disturbing philosophy or worldview, and often also mirrors abusive and dysfunctional relationship behaviors.

You’ll notice that this easily covers things like serial killers in movies or books as much as The Thing or Alien.

True Monsters usually do not work well with tabletop RPGs that expect long campaigns, that have players assigned to 1 character, and also, where players expect to be able to fight back against the monsters.   The hardest part is that the best stories in other media that use True Monsters have an escalation by the protagonists – they try harder, they get more clever, and the monster keeps revealing more and more about how bad it is – until you reach a climax.  A lot of planning and editing go around figuring out how to get that together and the climactic point – in tabletop RPGs you don’t have that level of prediction nor the ability to re-edit things.

For this reason, many monsters that are conceived as True Monsters in a game, at least how they’re described, end up actually just defaulting to Enemies.

Enemies

Enemies exist to be defeated.  These monsters might be “scary” in the sense they have effective tactics, hard-to-defend-against powers, or big math behind their stats, but they are intended to be defeated.  Even if players don’t know specifically what these monsters can do, if the campaign is built around the expectation of a lot of combat encounters well-balanced, the players will assume every threat is an enemy – a defeatable threat.

Enemy monsters mostly rely on invoking two things in play:

A Memorable Gimmick

The enemy does something unique that makes players recognize that fighting monster X is different than fighting monster Y.  A lot of boredom in long term fight-y games is that monsters mostly boil down to hitpoint sponges with bigger attacks, but nothing tactically or strategically different.  A unique gimmick forces players to consider their options to some level.

Respectable Threat

A respectable threat is one that the players can’t walk through on auto-pilot.  They have to make some choices or decisions and pay attention to really win.

Since most RPGs involve lots of fighting, most monsters are effectively enemies.   Actually, in a lot of RPGs, even most NPCs basically boil down to enemies as well.

Aliens

Aliens are sentients that primarily exist in your game to show off a completely alien way of thinking.  Although I’m using the word “Aliens” this could be ghosts, vampires, bio-engineered humans, someone who has studied the number Pi too deeply, robots, and so on.

Aliens produce often a combination of wonder and horror, depending on what their alien thinking is like.  This is not to say they never get used in combat, but rather, it’s not the primary form of interaction.  This is often the other way serial killers often get used in modern fiction -looking into their head, having them spout philosophy or manifestos of twisted values, etc.  Part of the horror in aliens is when you start being able to see how what they’re doing makes perfect sense, but the values and path of logic to get there is very very ‘wrong’, and the horror is that you have to put your own mind into that space to see it.

Aliens are also pretty hard to fit into a lot of games if only because familiarity destroys novelty – they stop seeming so alien after a while.  The alien values have to constantly pressure the protagonists and cause conflict.  When we see this in many movies or books, the point is to have the alien reveal their way of thinking and the climax is a shocking realization of what their values are (“How to serve man”) and then the story ends.

The problematic use of Aliens to avoid at all cost is classic racism.  A lot of media turns people into aliens by throwing deeply distorted stereotypes on them to make it seem “natural” that the targeted people think in illogical and irrational ways.  (“Look the unarmed Black guy is trying to rush down a cop from over 100 feet away even though he’s being shot at! Because Black people just are violent with no self preservation!”).  Or even visually people become inhuman appearing.

People

In a lot of media, we simply have sentient species that are just different looking with slight cultural value differences – nothing so drastic as to threaten co-existence.   These “monsters” aren’t really monsters at all, they may have special powers or whatever, but they think functionally the same as humans, with minor shifts in predilections, speech patterns, etc.

This is fairly much the default in games where you have a cosmopolitan setting, whether it’s fantasy’s “demi-humans” or sci-fi’s alien federation.  This is also the trend of a lot of modern stories – vampires are just sexy people who live a long time, ghosts are people stuck halfway between here and there, werewolves are people with a problem that kicks in semi-regularly, etc.

In a lot of ways, this is the other side of the racism issue – when you have media that excludes real world populations but inserts fantastic species that serve as “stand-ins”, you have the problem where the real world people are made too alien to include but blue furry aliens, blue skinned bio-engineered workers, special service androids, or house elves, are considered characters we can relate to.  In other words – real humans are too scary, fake stand ins that aren’t angry, hurt or upset, we can feel sorry for them.

In Your Games

I list out these 4 ideas because it’s very easy to start with one idea, and quickly find it drifting into not actually playing that way.

Some of it is mechanical – a lot of people point out deities or things like otherworldly beings shouldn’t have stats at all – they simply DO things.  If you put stats on a creature, then it has to get filtered through the mechanics, and a lot of games are mechanically designed to deal with Enemies, not True Monsters.

Some of it is the play styles and assumptions of your group.  If the players expect everything to be a fight they can take on, everything might as well be an Enemy.  This also includes games where the creatures were supposed to be People.  You can see where the Enemy vs. People divide is a lot at the heart of the classic D&D issue of alignment.

Some of it is moment-to-moment – if you want to invoke revulsion, you have to remember to narrate it.  It might be hard to remember if you’re too busy thinking about initiative scores and juggling numbers.  It might be hard to remember to do if the players are excitedly throwing 5 different things they want to do at the same time in your face.  If you want to invoke helplessness or vulnerability, you need to think about how to frame things in threatening ways, which might not be something you can easily remember when you’re trying to think of what “would” happen next.

Some of it is structural in the big sense – if characters die and players sit around for an hour doing nothing, is that fun?  If the big reveal of what the monster is or does pretty much is the climax, what happens next?  How do you pace these things?  Etc.

Having a good idea of this helps you plan what fits in your game, what your mechanics will support, whether your players will understand, and how you need to stay focused on using the monster, and not finding that you’ve drifted into a different idea that what you wanted.

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Improvising with NPC Motivations

October 13, 2014

Pretty much the two types of games I like to run are either strategic tactical Gamist games, or drama-laden Narrativist games.  The latter relies a lot on improvisation, which is usually pretty easy once I have a good set up of what the overall conflicts are, and what motivations power any given NPCs.

I’ve said it before – improvising is mostly doing exactly what the players do – look at the character and what makes sense for their motivations and what would be most entertaining.

A Character Study

One of the NPCs in my current game is Prince Rupak.  He’s brother to the King and when we first created him, dubbed him “Uncle Scar” ALA the Lion King.  That said, having the brother usurper type is kind of bland so I decided to do something more interesting with him.  He’s got 3 major motivations, which can go in many different ways:

1. Protect the kingdom

2. Protect his brother, the King, who is too indecisive and naive

3. Restore the kingdom’s glory!

What makes him an interesting character is that generally he’s a decent guy – but the conflicts are likely to force him to modify or ditch something – if the enemies try to take over the kingdom, he might have to take power just to be able to command and protect effectively…  and so on.

I don’t have to prep what he’ll do or say, I know that of those 3 motivations, anytime I throw him into a scene, or the players take actions that improve/endanger the safety of the kingdom, or that could potentially improve it’s place as an imperial power?  He has something to say or do about it.

Most nearly every NPC who matters has 2 or 3 motivations pulling them in different directions – sometimes it’s loyalty, sometimes it’s personal ideals.  To be sure, there’s a couple of NPCs who are single minded, but they usually are great at creating pressure because of their simple goals.

A Roster of NPCs

We started the game with 5 major NPCs and have been adding spot NPCs as needed.  Because the primary details needed are the characters’ motivations and maybe a 1-2 sentence description, it’s pretty quick and easy to do on the fly.   This obviously works better with games where the character stats are easy to make up on the spot or have no NPC stats whatsoever.

Levels of Support, Levels of Opposition

It’s also important to consider as you play, how far a given character will go based on the situation at hand.  The level of support or opposition is quite situational – in one case any NPC might be willing to simply give you good information and advice, and under different circumstances, they’d be willing to give their life for you.   Or perhaps you do something and they feel betrayed or threatened, and decide to work against you, to various degrees.   These can shift all the time based on what happens in play.

Again, this isn’t hard or requires too much tracking – just think of recent events, look at who the NPC is and what kinds of ways they might feel about the situation or characters in question.

“Aiming” the NPCs

The other half of it is focusing on what is going to be the most entertaining.  Here, “most entertaining” means looking at which motivations and goals intersect with the conflicts that players have latched on to.  While a motivation gives a lot of leeway for how an NPC might act or react, looking to see what turns up the pressure on a situation the players have emotionally invested in is key.

One of my players described it as, “Look for the ‘Oh shit!’ moments”, which doesn’t always mean the most overt/epic moments, but also ones that load things up emotionally.

This is also part of the reason I’ve been trying to make most of the characters pretty decent people if only caught in bad situations – when you actually care about the NPCs, things like what they think about you or how you protect them from themselves matters deeply.

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Setting Expectations – Bending and Breaking

October 12, 2014

I’m running a fun political game and it struck me how important it is to know in pretty much any RPG beyond a tactical fighty game,  whether aspects of a setting are things that are set in stone, things with occasional exceptions, or things to be broken through play – and how that changes the conflicts that make sense.

The Princess and the Throne

We’re playing a game loosely inspired by history.  We’ve got an aging king, with his daughter as his only child.  She’s actually astute and politically savvy enough that she’d probably make a good leader.  Now, there’s a lot of ways this could be played, but knowing where this fits is critical for the group to coordinate:

Gender Neutral

In a gender neutral game, this is a non-issue – the daughter takes up rulership.  This is my default for most fantasy or sci-fi games where the point is fluffy action and not social struggles.

Superficial Objections

In a game with superficial objections, there may be a character or two who makes some remark about the fact she can’t have the throne, but in actual play, nothing really stands in the way or provides any real resistance to it happening.   This is actually kind of tough ground to tread if you’re not clear because it’s easy to misinterpret objections “for show” as foreshadowing real obstacles in play.

Resistance

In a game with resistance, there’s significant resistance from many NPCs.  The situation would be unusual, but not insurmountable.  This is the place where I find the most fun when I want to deal with social issues in play, because it does make the issue a real thing, but it also makes it one that can be overcome.

Groundbreaking

A Groundbreaking game is where you have a character do something unheard of.  In this case, it would be the first woman to take the throne.  Resistance would be high and this would be the overarching conflict of the campaign.  Although this sounds potentially amazing, it seems like it would require a group to really know what they’re doing as it would be very easy to mix up “high resistance” with “unchangeable fact” of the setting.

Impossible to Change

An Impossible to Change game is one where there is absolutely no way for the princess to take the throne, ever.  These are also important to communicate, so players aren’t coming in attempting to make something happen that doesn’t fit the game, and also is a waste of time.

Anything in your setting that matters

Now mind you, this is in regards to sexism and political power – you could easily apply it to any kind of trope or expectation of play as put forth in the setting material itself – whether it’s a non-issue, up to a solid, unbreakable rule of the setting.

This stuff allows players to create characters aimed at conflicts that are compelling and interesting and not waste time in play on things that don’t fit.

This also doesn’t mean the hard set, impossible to change parts can’t make fun conflicts either – for example in Polaris and Thou Art But a Warrior, the end result WILL be that the society will fall, no matter what.  The personal conflicts for the characters aren’t actually about winning the unwinnable, but rather as a way to let characters reveal who they really are and focus on other conflicts that come out of that fact.

Past examples gone bad

I remember one game of L5R where a player wanted to play an exceptional character – an outcast to his clan, unskilled in all the things his clan valued, and lost to any political games.  His character concept had his character starting play from being backed into a corner – which, sounded great in concept! Problem was, the player effectively wanted all of those problems to be superficial – not any kind of actual resistance – when he got put to resistance, he completely freaked out – he got up and left the room.  Everyone else was like… “But… you put all this effort into starting your character from a hard spot… didn’t you want to have to fight your way out?”

There was a game of Dogs in the Vineyard, years back, where one player suddenly decided she wanted to have her character suddenly “rescue” the Indians and lead a revolt.  It was very weird, sudden, left field and felt like a lot of white guilt lashing out.  I didn’t have the language or the skill at the time to understand the solution was to stop the game and ask the player what was going on, but effectively there was a setting clash happening: I was playing with the understanding that the violent white colonization of the Americas was Impossible to Change as far as this game.

Navigating it for our game

For our game, my friend laid out that she wanted the primary conflict of the princess to be whether she can succeed her father, or at least, figure out how to arrange a marriage alliance that’s best for her kingdom.  Just from that, it made it obvious that we’re looking at a game set at Resistance, in terms of the gender issues.  (Mind you, I didn’t have these terms in my head 2 months ago when we started playing, but since we’re playing now and I’m watching how things unfold, I felt having terms would be useful going forward…)

I don’t think you need to spend a very long time negotiating every aspect of a Setting, but it’s probably good to look at what kinds of characters the players are creating and what they’re looking to do, and see where it intersects with setting bits that are unchangeable vs. non-issues, etc. and where you can set up great conflicts.  Having things like this language means that you can make these things clear AS you play, as well.

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Story Development – webcomics to RPGs

October 8, 2014

One of my friends I regularly game with, Sushu, has been making a webcomic on Tisquantum and also just recently posted a great piece on her scripting process.  We’ve played a ton of Primetime Adventures together, so it’s no surprise how much it’s influenced the way we look at stories and how we look at rpgs as well.

Her scripting process has a couple of really great points I think cross over well to roleplaying that are worth keeping in mind:

As you can see, I write a few sentences describing the overall thing that’s supposed to happen, and then figure out internal and external stakes.  Internal stakes are the issues that the character needs to work through, and external stakes are what would force the character to make choices re: internal stakes.  (Since usually we try to avoid issues that are hard, but it’s the hard choices that make stories compelling.)

For roleplaying, you flip that process – you figure out internal and external stakes, then play to find out what happens.  The key point to narrativist play is that there are internal stakes at hand, and play revolves around resolving them (for better or worse).  These stakes can be introduced/kept in play in many ways, ranging from the system/setting enforcing it as an expectation of play, to explicit Flags or even character concepts as long as play is kept aimed at those internal stakes as the focus of the game.

Although Sushu lays out a lot of questions and detailed thoughts in her scripting process – a lot of games run very well simply with a general understanding of the stakes which can be just a sentence or two on a character sheet – the rest flows from play and improvisation rather than deep analysis.

Non-narrativist play can focus solely on external stakes – can you complete the mission, can you solve the mystery, can you escape alive? – all without ever having to address or look at the internal stakes.  What often happens when you have incoherent goals or creative agendas is that players may write up internal stakes for their characters (often in the backstory, not communicated to the group) and you never see it show up in play, or when it directs a player’s choices, no one else gets the motivational connection because the internal stakes and thoughts were never really communicated or brought up during the game itself.

The second relevant point in her post, though, much more modified, is this:

a) the plot is subservient to the character development.  If it’s not something they would do, make something else happen.

In this case, we have to read it specifically: “Plot” means external stakes, character development is the process of dealing with the internal stakes.  The external stakes matter only in how they add pressure and drive internal stakes for the characters.

Whoever is responsible for setting scenes and developing conflict in play (a GM, any given player at the moment, etc.) needs to be mindful about when the scene or situation would create scenarios where the internal stakes are subsumed or lost completely and instead deliberately choose to set up situations that bring it to the focus of play instead of away from it.

The pitfall to avoid in this tidbit is having the players mixing up “something they wouldn’t do” with the all too common RPG “My Guy Syndrome” where a player stonewalls play or chooses actions which break the expected genre tropes or play conventions because “my guy wouldn’t do that”.  The main thing is that in roleplaying games, players should be more flexible and willing to find ways for their characters to engage meaningfully and only stopping play to help the group coordinate and redirect things when the conflicts and situations do not fit the game or your character concept at all.

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Signal Boost: Emily Care Boss’ RPG Theory Roundup

October 2, 2014

Emily Care Boss has an excellent post listing links and history of RPG theory.

Given that she created the “Lumpley-Care Principle” along with Vincent Baker, which basically highlights the point that anything that happens in the game fiction, does so because the group assents to it – which is a fundamental point to how tabletop roleplaying works, you should definitely check it out.

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BGN Podcast: Black Roleplayers

October 1, 2014

BGN Podcast: Black Roleplayers

Although obviously this is talking about Black folks who play roleplaying games, this podcast is actually a great layman’s explanation of roleplaying in general, if you wanted to share with folks who don’t know what roleplaying is.

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Morality Mechanics

September 25, 2014

Morality mechanics are rules and systems designed to have play deal with morality in some way.   There’s quite a few ways to do it and with some interesting results.

Direct Morality

Direct Morality in a game is where the system explicitly lays out what is good vs. bad and enforces it along those lines.  These are actually pretty hard to do – since all of humanity’s history we’ve been still working out ethics and morality, so having a set system usually means working in a very narrow clear-cut range of ideas or something where genre tropes are simple and well established with regards to morality.

The old Marvel Superheroes RPG is an example of one that works pretty well.  It’s somewhat of a narrow path to walk to get it right.  If the game is too defined in producing a code, you can end up with situations like Legend of the Five Rings’ Honor system where you run into places where the honorable action costs you points or the dishonorable action gains you points.   If the game is too vague about the scale or actions of morality, you get the endless discussions of D&D’s alignment system.

Divergent Morality

Divergent Morality is where the game is designed such that the mechanically coded systems of value and morality are clearly not the real issue of morality – the point is to explore where they meet, and more often, where they diverge.   These work much better because nearly always we’re talking about a system where the mechanically coded “morals” are actually just pressures to constantly set up a choice between following it, breaking it, or finding ways to work around/with it towards real morality.

Polaris and Thou Art But a Warrior both use their particular codes of honor to trigger the character’s advancement along their tragic future, which, often enough, real moral choices are often strongly at odds with the code itself.  Dog Eat Dog is pretty much a game built on the scathing criticism of colonialism and it’s form of cultural genocide set up as morality code.  Poison’d has Sins, which include some things that are clearly wrong, some things which are situational, and other things like Paganism or homosexuality which simply aren’t.

Emergent Morality

Emergent Morality are games where the moral code isn’t directly given mechanics, but rather the mechanics as a whole are set up to pressure you to finding yourself having to make moral choices all the time.  These are often subtle from a read through, but brutally powerful when you play them.

Steal Away Jordan uses it’s Worth mechanic, which, naturally puts white slave owners at the top and everyone else progressively further down the scale, and when you’re closer to the bottom you are forced to make alliances, to seek help, to even align with the oppressor just to survive.  The Drifter’s Escape sets up the Drifter in a situation of horrible choices and morality emerges from that.  Trollbabe explicitly sets up where your character’s effectiveness is based in risking allies to injury or death.  Lacuna and 3:16 Carnage Among the Stars has advancement mechanics that explicitly set player goals against each other even as they’re supposed to be working together, which creates an extra level of friction.

Consequences

Procedural Consequences

Procedural consequences list out a series of actions or activities which fill or fail the moral code.  “If X then Y” which makes these often inflexible and somewhat tricky to use well.  This is most often what people think of when they think of morality mechanics – Vampire’s Humanity lists, Legend of the Five Rings’ Honor codes, etc.

Directive Based Consequences

Directive consequences involve points added/lost when an action is taken that fulfills the spirit of the value/morality code as determined primarily on the basis of a player making that judgment.  Instead of listing out a code, it primarily sits on a player (the GM, a chosen player, the group) to decide when you’ve fulfilled or violated a moral position or code.  Notice that for this to work well, the thing being judged and the basis of doing so needs some kind of guidance or clarity – or you end up with the same problem that sends people spiralling around D&D alignment arguments.

Sorcerer’s Humanity mechanic fulfills this, though Bliss Stage uses it to an even stronger degree with it’s intermission scenes.

Randomized Consequences

Randomized consequences are pretty interesting.  These can be things like rolling a die to see if you gain or lose points despite having done actions towards that effect, or it can be a roll at the end of your character’s arc to see what the effects are.

1001 Nights uses it’s Safety/Ambition/Escape tracks as gambles you take between scenes, which sometimes results in the most bastard player characters living happily despite their behavior.  Poison’d uses the Salvation roll after your character dies to see if they make it to Heaven, or fall to the depths of Hell for their deeds.

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