Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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The speed of character intimacy

February 25, 2019

When you watch a movie, or read a book, one of the highlights in a story is finding points where an event or situation is highly meaningful to the protagonist(s).  But, part of the thing is, until you know the characters, what is meaningful, or the weight of the events, might not be clear to you.  As you get deeper into the story, you know the characters better and understand how significant some things are and what it means in that context.

“Who is this character and why does the player care about them?”

For Narrativist play in RPGs, this is a core point of play.  The juicy part is where the fictional bits are meaningful to the character, and all of that is meaningful to us – the people playing/creating/witnessing the game.  To be able to consistently deliver on that requires an understanding of the character(s) which I’m calling Character Intimacy.  (There may be other people who have coined this idea, maybe with better terms? I don’t know, I’ve been out the theory circles for a long time.)

Being able to answer “Who is this character and why does this player care about them?” is how you can set up the right kinds of pressure and conflicts that allow us to see those points in play where the character (and player) is dealing with something that is laden with meaning.  But getting there isn’t instantaneous.

Getting fluent in the character

The first issue is that you don’t know the character until you play the character.  You might have an idea, you might have some backstory, but the real personality of the character is something that will only really come out when you have to see the character in play – a lot of ideas about who this character is can only be improvised in the moment.

Depending on the game and the player, becoming fluent in the character depends a fair amount on what kind of pressure(s) and situations the character is placed in, and the players’ own investment and desire to express the character through play.

In many long-form traditional games that are not set up for explicitly Narrativist play, I see a lot of times it takes 5-6 sessions for characters to get any kind of expression up to where players can start figuring out what matters.  (Given that most of these games are set up for Illusionist/railroading play, the ultimate fact is that what matters to the characters or the players is irrelevant and never really tested in play.)

But in games that are better at it, I usually find it’s a 2-3 session turn around (maybe it could happen over the course of a single session if I still ran/played 4-6 hour sessions instead of 2-3 hour ones.).  The first session is everyone asking “Who is my character?” and the second session being “Who is my character in relation to your character?”, sometimes well enough we get a good feel for them.

Designed Solutions

There are some ideas that allow you to do this more reliably and/or faster.  The common one I’ve written about in the past is Flag mechanics.  However, I’ve also explained as well that usually the Flags you see at the beginning of a game are guide posts and your job is to better nail down more accurately what is the real emotional punch for the players.

A second solution is games that tie a high pressure Narrativist bit to a core play mechanic.  Ben Lehman’s Drifter’s Escape, for example, forces the player to choose between bad choices most of the game, so the pressure tester of “who is this character?” comes out relatively quickly.  These mechanics, however, still depend on the group to quickly pick up character intimacy and better apply the pressure mechanics as you play, otherwise it rings hollow like most “morality choices” in videogames.

A third mechanic is anything that lets players set up the scenes and conflicts.  While it is not interesting to a person to constantly be the only one setting up conflicts for their own character (see the Czege Principle: “When one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun.”) – it can be helpful sometimes for players to be able to set up their own character’s adversity in order to highlight to the rest of the group what kind of things are important to them as a player and what conflicts/pressure is fun for that character to be enmeshed in.  And, of course, if players can set these up for each other, it allows players who are invested in each others’ characters to also set up things as well.

Obviously, this is not a full list, but a few common examples.

“Are we there yet?”

You’ve hit character intimacy in a game when a situation pops up and you can immediately identify what it would look like as “This THING is the worst possible thing to happen for THIS particular character”.  (“Frank finds out John has been lying? OH BOY.”  “They’ve just given Mary the perfect chance for revenge?!?”)  It’s that sort of thing you can see coming in a TV or movie drama and you just know it’s going to be intense.

Character intimacy is when you can identify the overt motivations of the character, but also see the nuances that complicate it – their doubt, fear, conflicting motivations, and so on.  And, of course, beyond just understanding what makes the character tick, being able to reliably put them in situations that turn up the pressure for their particular needs/desires/fears.

For me, I find this is easier to attain in the conversations and down time between game sessions.  Taking time to reflect on what choices the characters made, asking questions of the players that are out of character but highlight motivations, and so on.  If the game depends less on a singular GM, it’s helpful for those ideas to be available to everyone – no reason you should be stuck to only learning about a character during play, if you can extend some of the play time to provide ideas outside of it as well.

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Pointer Scenes

September 19, 2018

I’ve been running a D&D game, but doing something very different than anything I’ve done in the past.  Each session, I try to include a scene completely untied to the current situation – a flashback, or a meanwhile scene that points to NPCs or situations tied to the characters, but not in any way that will affect them in the moment.

This might be a flashback to how you first learned swordfighting, or perhaps why you left your noble house.   It might be something happening back in the safety of town – an ally talks about how you once helped them out, or perhaps a helper NPC is struggling to get to where you are to deliver an important item.

I call these “Pointer Scenes” because they point to the player character and/or the setting even if the core situation for the PCs is relatively straightforward.  That said, it does have more to it than just “throw in random flashbacks and cut scenes”.

Be a fan of the PCs

This first rule is lifted straight from Apocalypse World.  But basically, think of these scenes as a chance to learn about a player character and see why everyone should care about them.

Did your player say they had a Fighter who grew up as a Gladiator in their youth?  What was that like? How did they feel about it?  Did the Bard say they’re on the run? Who did they anger?  What was their closest call like so far?  

Aside from getting to know them, also consider if you can set scenes which will show positive sides to the character and admirable qualities, especially early in a campaign.  (We need to care about characters in order to accept their flaws, whereas characters who start off jerks tend to have a much harder time winning empathy or interest).

Spread the spotlight

Try to spread these out among all the PCs.  This may not be possible every session, but do try to give everyone a little space to shine.  If a character doesn’t seem to have a lot going on, consider what backstory or distant events might make their situation more interesting or immediately relevant.

The snobby noble character hasn’t gotten much going on.  Maybe something like a Meanwhile scene where their uncle is trying to pressure the PC’s parents into setting up an arranged marriage for politics.  Maybe a political group like a church or temple is seeking to set up the PC to be made example of.  Because the situation isn’t immediately in the player’s face, they have time to start thinking about how they want to handle it and it’s not a complete surprise when the problems start coming in.

If the scene has little or no choices/interaction from the player, make it shorter

A few of the scenes have no player interaction or choice – such as a meanwhile scene happening, or a flashback/montage.   When you use these, make them short.  They can add context, give info, quickly hammer out something you’d label exposition, but they’re not as interesting as actually playing.

I like to try to also give these scenes ties to what is currently happening to the player character.

In my current game, the elven paladin had a flashback scene to his homeland where people are slowly dying from the heavy poisonous pollen which floats in the air… I tell the player the character is a bit shaken up when one of their companions starts coughing as they go through the forest. 

This both ties into why the character might be remembering this, but also gives the player a chance to roleplay based on the prompt… and mind you – stoically keeping it to themselves, revealing a little concern, or having a very hard time are all equally valid and interesting ways it could go.

Include likable NPCs in many of them

No one wants to be a hero if the world is full of assholes.

Give players lots of people to like – decent folks, brave folks, clever folks, fun witty characters, caring mentors, siblings or best friends, etc.

My basic rule when coming up with these characters is that they want to do right by the PCs (and presumably other NPCs in general) and they may have certain values or ways they go about it.  If you show that off, players will get into them on their own… and the players will choose on their own they need to protect a given NPC or that they want to go track down a character from their past or be very excited to finally meet the character from the meanwhile pointer scene you made.

One of my players has a character who escaped an arranged marriage.  I introduced her aunt who taught her martial arts, then eventually helped her escape the marriage and fake her death while fighting monsters.  ALL of the players love this NPC.  So now there’s a character I know to bring back at some point that will be fun that everyone’s invested in, and I’m pretty sure if I just drop a hint, the players will go looking on their own.

NPCs also allow you to point back to the player characters as well.  You can have scenes where NPCs are talking about what they admire in one of the player characters, what they feel about the risks and choices they’ve made… or, if the situation warrants, if they feel disappointed or betrayed.   First the players have to care about the NPC to even care what the NPC thinks.

Flesh out your setting

Settings are fun.  Worlds of magic and fantasy, sci-fi and alien cultures.  The thing is, the giant setting no one knows about (other than you) isn’t in play.  The setting that is in your notes but not in gameplay, is also not in play.

However, with the power of Pointer scenes, you can flashback or do a meanwhile to events happening long ago in a very far away place.  In other words, you can highlight a lot more of your setting in play.  And teasing these elements gets players eager to start seeing other places and poking around.

The flashbacks to the elven homeland have got the players very curious about what’s going on over there, but they’re some time away from getting there… but it sets up excitement, all without me having to draw a huge map or do a lot of exposition.

This also allows you to drop in bits of setting in snippets rather than one whole infodump.  This is how most forms of media actually do build up their settings – you see bits as needed and then you learn about the fictional world as you enjoy the immediate story with the principal characters involved.

Up the Stakes / Why this matters

Along with telling us who the characters are and what’s going on in this world, make sure at least some of the scenes also point back to the current thing the player characers are doing in the moment.  What’s at stake?  What can be gained if they succeed?  What can be lost?

The players are currently on a quest to get to an abandoned observatory to make a current, accurate, map to help the army deal with an invading force.  One of the scenes was a meanwhile scene showing one of the characters’ mentors having a strategy discussion with a leader and it boiling down to “We don’t have many odds in our favor and this is going to be ugly.”  So… the players feel a bit more pressure to succeed, but it’s not like the characters know this is what’s happening.

Also notice that as the players become more invested in having their characters resolve past issues, meet with NPCs and so on, part of the stakes become how the characters do things, lines and values they won’t cross, and what the NPCs think of them, as well.

Extra Notes

My games are currently about 2 hours long, with each player (4) getting one of these scenes, which usually last 5-ish maybe up to 10 minutes.  While these don’t make up the majority of play, they do add a lot to the party’s interactions with each other, to the roleplaying in general, and to the excitement about each other’s characters.

My game podcasts are on Soundcloud.  Terrible audio quality, but we’re having fun.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.

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Scene Prompting

August 11, 2018

For the current game I’m running, I’m trying a new thing – I’m basically mashing two techniques together from other games I enjoy.

Apocalypse World Random Questions

One of the pieces of advice AW gives is for the GM to sometimes ask non-sequitur, personal questions of the characters.  You might be in the middle of a firefight and the GM is asking you to remember what your character’s first memory of tasting fresh food with your mother was like.

The thing that these questions do, is they basically provide windows into who the character is, and gets us, the audience, to sometimes step out of getting stuck on the immediate plot issues, which tends to become a sandpit for players in many traditional games.

Tenra Bansho Zero’s Emotion Matrix

TBZ has a chart you roll on whenever you meet another PC or major NPC – and it basically gives you a relationship prompt.  This gives direction and cuts out a lot of the testing and jousting to establish who the characters are to each other.  (TBZ also doesn’t let this be pure random chance – everyone at the table can bid some points to alter the results, and often this is where creative players create amazing situations from it.)

The other thing that this does is that it prompts certain kinds of scenes between characters.  If the characters are “destined enemies”, there’s got to be a point that makes it clear to the audience, that this is going to be ugly.  If it’s a friendship, the players have an idea of what to angle for.

Even though this seems to “take away” some control over your character, it ends up getting players to express who their characters are much better than having no prompt at all.

Scene Prompting

So, I combine a bit of both of those.  What I’ve been doing is making small charts, that suggest a type of scene, and the players will get to roll on it once a session.  I’m still refining how these charts should work, and whether they should be static or change session to session, but they have helped a lot in terms of breaking up the traditional RPG tendency to get stuck in plot and logistics.

1 Pick another player character – flashback scene to how they helped you out in the past

2 Pick another player character – you’re doing something mundane and having fun together

3 Pick another player character or NPC – you’re together and you get to ask a personal question

4 Flashback – name an NPC in your past who tried to stop you from your current venture

5 Flashback – name an NPC in your past who encouraged you on this venture

6 Pick another player character – show off something your character is an expert in, in this area/situation

Notice that all of these require at least one other character to interact with?  Also that none of the ones with other player characters are built around conflict or disagreement?  That’s all intentional.  If you’re playing a game based around a team or party, you should probably have some “team building” scenes that show why these characters are working together, particularly if the stakes are high.

I’ve been tweaking the entries each session, and I’m not sure if there has to be a single, unchanging chart, or if it is always best crafted to specific groups and situations.   Obviously, if your game isn’t based on an ensemble of protagonists mostly cooperating, you would choose some different points of focus.

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Points of Interest Prep

August 8, 2018

This is basically the prep style I’ve developed for low work “sandbox” style play.  In most sandbox style of RPGs, the GM preps (or buys a pre-made adventure) that has a large map, and tons of neat things prepped for the players to run into.

This requires a lot of work on the GM’s part ahead of time, whereas, since I run shorter arcs, it doesn’t make sense to spend 20 hours of prep in a game that probably will run 6-8 sessions.  So, what this method is about, is setting up just enough to cover the “next session” without also locking players into a definite path.

Points of Interest

First, write down the place of interest where the characters are at.   This might be a space station, a base of operations, a town, or whatever, depending on your setting.

Next, write down 3-4 more places of interest they might travel to within the timespan of your game session.  Some of this will depend on the scale of the campaign – a game of people warping around the galaxy works very differently than a game focused on a single sprawling city, and likewise, this depends on how long your game sessions are.  I tend to run 2-3 hour game sessions, so that keeps things close.

If you want, you can put these on a simple map, or draw them in boxes with lines like a flowchart,  but that’s up to you.  Early on, it’s not needed, but if you use this method of prep for a longer campaign, it’ll keep things easier to track.  That said, it’s about prep-as-you-go, and reducing the amount of wasted prep, so your effort-to-play ratio is better than a full sandbox map set up.

Three Things

For each of these points of interest, write down three interesting things the players are likely to encounter.  NPCs, threats, big hazards, or things that would be of interest specifically to the player characters involved (“Hey, that’s the oldest temple of my order!”, “The cheapest stardrive parts are sold here.” etc.).

The players do not have to engage or follow all 3 things to their conclusion, however, the players’ interest in these things is a good sign of how well you’re setting these up.   (Yes, you can do 2 interesting things, or 4 things sometimes.  That works too.  3 is a good norm though.)

NPCs want things

NPCs to note are characters who want something that affects the player characters – the druid wants help hunting the dire wolf, the politician wants their cooperation, an informant is trying to get info to sell on them…, etc.  You can write down a short sentence about the NPC and what they want.  If the game has relevant skill/stats that matter, you can usually drop those in without needing a full write up.

While it’s easy to focus on the “plot” thing an NPC might want, you should also consider what social interaction thing an NPC might want from the player characters as well.  These are most interesting when they add a nuance or work at odds with the practical motivation (“The Bishop wants you to turn over the Cursed Sword, but also wants to mend the rift between you and your uncle.”)

Threats

Monsters, bandit gangs, stars that emit radiation pulses, a rickety wooden bridge… if it is something that might directly harm the player characters, you’ll want to prep these.   Since these sorts of things end up taking up the most time to prep in most games, I usually don’t have points of interest that are ALL threats.

This also mirrors the idea of a general sandbox game – danger isn’t in every single place, and certainly not in equal amounts.  Even travelling to a point of interest doesn’t always mean encountering each threat – smart players will use means to gather intel ahead of time and figure out which things to avoid or sneak past.

History and Setting

Any point of interest that is a place where people live (or have lived in the past), is a good chance to fill out your setting.  Obviously, you can show how the characters get by and live their lives, their cultures and practices, but you can also show things in ruins and things left behind.  And, not just describing it in a general sense – you can give more direct information to players whose characters specialize in history or cultural lore.  (“The language on the walls is a form of Later Velnapian, probably part of the Migration after the war…  there won’t be any great libraries as you’d normally expect, but any records they brought with them will certainly be what they considered the most important to save.”)

Aside from cool worldbuilding factor, some of these might foreshadow or forewarn about things in other Points of Interest.  (“Assuming this funeral poem isn’t figurative, I’m guessing they lost half their fleet when their defense drones went rogue in the quadrant over.  How about we go around?”)

Play, Prep, Adapt

After the session ends, note where the players are; figure out 3-4 new points of interest they might reach after that and prep the interesting things there, as well.  If the players stayed in the same area, consider if some of those interesting things might have changed or if new ones might pop up.  And, of course, “what’s interesting” can change quite a bit based on actions in play – characters who are heroes might find people asking for help against bigger problems, characters who are fugitives are hunted, and so on.

Obviously, most NPCs can travel as well, so you might want to have some show up at new places depending on what happened.  Things like extreme weather or disasters might affect a lot of points of interest.  The classic “evil army is invading” always can affect places.

Notice, though, as you build up more and more locations, you’re only having to look at 9-12 things at most, a lot of which are going to be 1-2 sentence descriptions or ideas.   If you re-use NPCs, they become easier to play as you get more comfortable with them as well.

Using this system, I usually have prep times of 20 minutes to an hour between sessions.

 

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Game design: Siloing Resources

February 24, 2018

It’s a generally understood that you should design your game to reward the players to do the thing you want to see happen in play.  The important, but sometimes missed part, is that is that what you should want to see in play is the thing the players would also find fun, but maybe not realize on their own.

So part of that is “siloing” – some resources or rewards, are isolated in terms of how you can get them.  When you fail to silo things correctly, there may be glaring loopholes that make it easy, and even encouraging, for players to completely avoid the fun things that should be core to the game.

Monster Hunter World

I’ve been playing a lot of the Monster Hunter World videogame, and I’ve been a fan of the series for a long time.  Like many games, it has potions which you need to heal.  However, there’s no way to buy potions.   You have to go into the field and collect the materials.

This sets up a particular cycle: you need to heal, so you need to get materials.  If you want to gather a bunch at one go, you have to run to several points on a given map – which means you have to explore and know the map.  While you’re doing this, other monsters might attack you, so it’s a bit of turnaround from you hunting the monsters.  Bonus: knowing an area, gives you an advantage in the core gameplay loop of hunting, so that feeds right back in.

D&D and magic items for sale

Compare this to an often recurring issue for D&D games – the breakdown of magic item economy.   The core gameplay loop for D&D is dungeon crawling – either for treasure heists or as a tactical combat.   In both cases, however, the fastest way a single character gains ability is acquiring a magic item, which makes it a powerful resource in terms of game design.

In some forms of play, the only way to get magic items is to go on dungeon crawls and find them – so this means this feeds into the core game loop.  In others, though, you start ending up with options for magic items to be bought – in which case, it is far easier to find ways to get gold to buy the items, rather than try to deal fully with a dungeon crawl or have to figure out how to best use a random item you gained instead of buying 3 things that perfectly match your character’s role.  Once that happens, the reward no longer is tied to the core play activity.

Siloing – one path or a choice?

When you design a requirement for a resource or a reward, you can basically go about it in two ways.

First, give only one option to get the resource/reward.  This is a good choice for making core gameplay elements a requirement and unavoidable in play.  How much/how long/how often are parts to balance out to make sure it’s fun and not annoying, a chore, or so easy as to be meaningless.

Second, give two or more options to get the resource/reward.  Each one lays out a separate path, and, done correctly, might allow for a very meaningful choice, or at least, an expression of play.

In many games that use Flag mechanics, like Burning Wheel, you can choose which of your Beliefs you pursue, you don’t have to do all 3 equally, or even at all.  As long as you’re pursuing at least one of them, you get rewards.  In contrast, the earlier Riddle of Steel makes it so that early one, you can pursue just one or two of your flags, but if you want to improve high level abilities, you need to have nearly maxed out all of them.  Notice, however, that what this is, is that it’s several choices within the same category – “pursue this Flag” is still the underlying mechanic.

The danger in this second approach, however, is that many games have done things where the potential paths to reward/resources create contradictory styles of game.  If these contradictory things don’t fit well together, and different players in the group are playing along these paths, you get problems.   In this case, it’s important for the game designer to make clear that these things are exclusive options the group or the GM will have to pick BEFORE the game begins, and not find out after you start.

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The Reclaimers Roleplaying Stream

February 10, 2018

Starting tomorrow, I’ll be running a once a week RPG stream on Twitch with Quinn Murphy through CypherofTyr’s I Need Diverse Games Twitch Channel.

We’re doing Sundays, 6PST to 8PST.  Our first game is Tenra Bansho Zero!

Video link from the session is here.

Reclaimers Screen.jpg

 

 

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Signalboost: Send INDG to GenCon

June 11, 2017

I remember going to GenCon around 2003-4 and having someone say, “WHY should we care about gamers of color?”  Well, I never thought we’d see folks getting a chance to really talk about it anytime in my generation.

Drop a bit if you can!

Help send I Need Diverse Games to GenCon

Send Tanya DePass—2017 Industry Insider—to Gen Con! (Tanya DePass)