Archive for August, 2007

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Dangerous Characters

August 2, 2007

Some time back, Vincent Baker said that the thing about Narrativist play was that your characters are changable- they’re not set in stone.  They’re dangerous because they might turn out to be characters you don’t like (as a person, not, say, as an entertaining fiction).

Funny enough, I was watching some cartoons and it clicked a little deeper with me.  Safe stories have characters who never change- heroes stay heroes (even if they make mistakes) and villains stay villains (except the one guy who’s really good at heart).  But basically, you don’t see a character take a drastic change like you do in serious stories.

In serious stories, the character you love might make terrible decisions and never recover, or transform into a monster over time.  In other words, like real people, serious stories you can’t be 100% sure of a character.  I guess in many ways, that’s well reflected in the ambiguity and shifting nature of lots of fairytales as well.

I like both safe and dangerous stories, though I think it’s probably a crucial thing to consider when you’re collaboratively making a story.

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Building your own house of cards, pt. 3

August 1, 2007

Options for Better Gaming

So, there’s a list of common things that produce common problems.  How about… not doing them?

It’s hard, because pretty much a lot of those ideas are imbedded as fundamental ideas of roleplaying in many games, and for many people.  If you take one or more away, suddenly, “It’s not roleplaying”.  (see various games which break one or more assumption and the endless arguments if it’s “really a roleplaying game?” or “Are you really playing a character?” etc.)

So what are we talking about?

1. Short Commitment Games

2-4 hours, like a deep boardgame, not 6+ hours like taking on a part time job.  One shots, or 3-6 session games, where players can actually get payoff for seeing a story to the end, rather games with no end in sight.   (“OMG! How can you get anything done?” keep reading, I’ll tell you)

2.  Try playing with a lot of different people

When you have these short commitments, it’s easy to get drop in players, pick up games, play in other groups, etc.  This also changes the basic dynamic- you’re not looking for a perfect group that will stick with you forever, you’re looking for folks who can play now, and are ok people.  In the short run, this doesn’t seem much better than what you had before, but in the long run you build up a network of folks and can find some group of people from the bunch who are into what you’re into, and if you’re into multiple things, you can also get that going on.

In other words, it’s like CCG or boardgamers- you now have a network of gamers, not just a few tiny huddled circles.

3.  Play what you want to play

You don’t have to be caught in THE ONE GAME that you HAVE to play because “everyone else wants to play it”.  Because not everyone else wants to play it- in the network you’ve developed, someone wants to play something different, or at least is willing to try it out.  You might make concessions or compromises here and there, but you also have others doing the same- you’re not forced to spend all your time wishing you could try out new stuff.  You also don’t HAVE to keep playing with anyone you think is a jerk.  Imagine that!

4. Say what you want, meta is ok!

“It would be awesome if the Dark Lord’s army attacked, right now!”  “Maybe the King is actually my half brother, and neither of us know it” etc.   How can you get stuff done in 4 hours?  Because you’re not fumbling around trying to get it to happen through verbal charades.  It also helps that your game groups are now made of folks who want to play -this game-, in a similar style, instead of playing tug of war about what the game is going to be about.

5.  Criticism is ok!

Well, now that you’re playing with a bunch of different folks, if someone doesn’t like the game you’re into, or your style of play, it’s not the end of your gaming.  You can criticize and understand where things work for you, where they don’t.  This also lets you make better decisions in the future as to what you’ll play, how you’ll play, and who you’ll play with.  No need for hard feelings or bitter broken relationships- consider it the same way if someone you know doesn’t like the same kind of food as you- it’s not a big deal.

Basically, the folks I’ve seen work this system not only avoid a lot of problems to play (“How do we keep a group together?” “No one has time to play!” “20 minutes of fun in 4 hours”), but also a lot of the problems that go outside of play, such as the tension between friends or weird “let’s just not say anything and not invite them back” passive aggressive bs.

Take bits that work for you, give them a shot.  Try playing with different folks, see the difference.  People say, “No play is better than bad play” but I have to ask why we should choose between either, when we can JUST play, and play well.

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Building your own house of cards, pt. 2

August 1, 2007

Where does this get us?

1. One True Wayism

If there’s multiple ways to play, there might be differences in your group, and that might make you not really a group. Or might give folks the idea to go elsewhere. Better not let that happen. No- there is no other way to play, just this one way. And it’s the best way. Period. After all, you’re “really” roleplaying because you get together every week for 6 hours and never say what you want to happen so you’re good roleplayers.

Even if you’re bored.

2. Irrational Defensiveness/Reading judgement into everything

If someone else talks about another way to play, they’re clearly criticizing the way you play, and calling it less than “real roleplaying” therefore you have to go apeshit on them. Otherwise you might think too hard about that and feel bad about whatever kind of gaming you’re doing. Because, like Highlander, ther can only be one.

3. Passive Aggressiveness

If you are stuck with the same people for long periods of time, and cannot say what you want or talk about the issues of differences (because that would either be cheating or endangering the group or both), you have, by definition, walked into the land of the Passive Aggressive.

4. Anti-socialization

It’s always an old saw- “Gamers are anti-social, etc. etc.” I’ve met lots of gamers who were very social. But I’ve also met many who weren’t. And at first, I believed there was something about gaming that caused those folks to gravitate towards it, and perhaps there is, but I also thought about the above and what it does to us as gamers.

First, if you’re playing with the same people, for months on end, you’re not meeting and socializing with new people. Period. Unlike some other things, like say, even if you played racketball with the same circle all the time, you’d probably meet a few new folks at the court just before or after you- it’s still some kind of new input.

Second, if you’re operating on passive aggressive behavior as the norm, you’re working from broken social cues and communication.  You can’t assume anyone really means what they’re projecting, and odds are you’ve found projecting honestly results in trouble, so you don’t do it either.

Third, if you have to protect the group no matter what, you can’t let other folks in easily, for they might endanger the group by bringing new ideas or exposing differences by accidentally blundering into “the thing we don’t talk about”.

Fourth, neither going out to meet new folks nor having new folks regularly come in, means you get stuck in a comfort zone that is never really pushed or expanded.  Expanding your comfort zone is pretty much a necessity to socializing.

Though I’ve met both social and poorly socialized gamers, I noticed the more they conformed to the beliefs and behaviors in the previous post and this one, in general, the worse the socialization, and vice versa, the more they got away from this, the better the socialization.

My unscientific anecdotal belief is that this set of beliefs and behaviors, combined, trains bad socialization into people.

Mind you, it’s not the act of roleplaying per se, it’s all these weird practices that have become attached to it, that I feel are problematic.

(next: Options for better gaming)

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Building your own house of cards

August 1, 2007

Gamers bump their heads against a lot of problems. Many self inflicted. At first, I thought this was simply the nature of the beast. But then I looked again and again, and found, no, things don’t have to be like this. There’s a set of beliefs and practices, that generally make gaming harder, not easier.

Here’s the pitfalls to avoid:

1. “The only ‘real’ roleplaying is at least 6 hour sessions, with the same group, for months on end”

This is the default basically pitched by a lot of games, and gamer culture in general. What’s wrong with it? Well, let’s see what it spawns as a result:

2. “Gamers are hard to find.”

Well, if your expectation is folks who are going to commit to 6 hour sessions once a week for months on end, maybe you will have a hard time finding folks.

3. “We got to keep the group together (or else it’s not ‘real’ roleplaying)”

Huh? That seems weird, right? But check out the number of folks who are playing a game they don’t like because “it’s what everyone else (in my small group) likes”. Or, “We can’t just kick him out (who would we play with)?” etc. You see a lot of peacemaking and compensation efforts to hold a group together often at the expense of basic fun.

4. “We don’t talk about that.”

What’s “that”? Could be rules, could be theory, could be the canon of Lord of the Rings, whatever. Here’s the secret of why we don’t talk about “that”. It’s because it points to differences in the group, and differences mean division and division means we’re not the happy go lucky game group we need to be to justify staying together to play our 6 hour sessions every week for 2 years straight.

Instead, half the group will salivate at the combat, the other half will roll their eyes. Half the group will spend an hour bartering over a ship, the other half will read comic books. But no one will say that it’s boring or talk about how they don’t like those parts (at least not to the other half’s face) and we’ll be a happy group. That’s bored at least half of the time.

5. “Saying what you want to happen is meta. Meta is cheating.”

Along with the previous practice, this basically turns all of your gaming into a verbal version of charades. Instead of acting things out, now you’re describing acting things out in order to communicate something you can’t directly talk about.

You want your hero to get romantic with the Princess but the GM misread your actions and thinks you’re trying to kidnap her and you try to go with it thinking it will really be a fun misunderstanding and now your hero is on the gallows waiting to be hung.

Wow, that’s fun. And it only took four hours, right?

Of course, you could have said, “I really want to have a romance with the Princess”, and you and the GM could have worked together to make that happen and the other players at the table could have had their characters chip in and provide extra support or rivalries and all the cool things that make a good romance.

But that’s cheating. And that’s bad. So instead we fumble around for four hours, and do it the dumb, clumsy way instead of the fun, easy way.

(next: Where does this get us?)

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D&D’s FYIA Tokens

August 1, 2007

Last year at GenCon, Shannon brought up a frustration about the D20 rules where her uber-monk wasn’t allowed to do what she had designed it to do- all over some arcane technicality rule that prevents critical hits if you move beyond a certain distance (don’t ask me, it was REALLY ARCANE). Mike Sugarbaker brought up the idea that D&D should include, “Fuck You, I’m Awesome!” tokens, where you spend one, tell off the GM and get to bend or break the rules.

It’s stuck in my head as probably one of the biggest missing bits to the game, even through all of it’s modifications and evolutions post 3.0. Though certainly we’ve seen the addition of Action Points, and such, they’re still not really in line with the basic principle of value to rarity- you only get a handful per level, and they’re kind of tame for what they do.

FYIA Tokens, instead, need to kick ass. They need to be something you’d desperately want, and use in a game. And you need to get enough to make it worthwhile.

So, here’s how they work:

You get 2 Free Tokens per game session. You can spend these on your PC anytime, but you can’t save them between sessions. They pretty much exist for you to spend willy-nilly each session.

You get 1 Bankable Token per level of your character, each time you level up. (1 Bankable at 1st level, +2 Bankable at 2nd, + 3 Bankable at 3rd, etc.) As you might surmise, they’re something you can save between sessions, and over time.

What FYIA Tokens do (yes, you can spend more than one at a time to get multiple effects)

Spend 1 to:

– Turn any roll from a failure to a success

– Turn any success into a 20 or an auto confirmed critical hit

– Maximize any damage roll (magic or melee)

– Minimize any damage roll received (magic or melee)

– Cause an enemy to automatically fail Spell Resistance

– Cause an enemy to automatically fail a Saving Throw

Strategies and effects on play:

So what does this all mean? Well, they’re useful for both combat heads and spellcasters. Obviously this means a party becomes tougher, probably at least one CR better in terms of overall encounters. Mages can execute “Save or Die” spells easier, fighters can pull a guaranteed critical once a game, or a maximized critical, etc.

On the other hand, even if you tend to roll unlucky or have a crappy character build, you do get to be awesome at least once a session. Smart players will stick to just using the 2 Freebies every session and building up the Bankable Tokens for a really tough fight. Other players will burn out their Bankables really quick, but at least be able to do something neat every session anyway.

As characters rise in levels, they get more Bankable Tokens and get more dangerous overall (A maximized critical hit from a raging 20th level Barbarian tricked out on weapons and feats is a lot worse than a maximized critical hit from a 3rd level Barbarian. And they get a LOT more tokens, meaning you’ll be seeing multiple hits in a really tough fight.)

On the other hand, Bankable Tokens once spent, are gone, so characters can shine really awesome in bursts, or all out at one time.

You’ll notice that these rules work well regardless of if you’re playing D20 3.5 or 1st edition. That’s intentional.

So, next time you go off on a dragon, maximizing your spell damage or pulling a critical on it, screaming, “Fuck you I’m awesome!”, thank Shannon and Mike for the good idea.