Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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Layering understanding: Players vs characters & audience

January 27, 2021

I often find a lot of good ideas in RPG theory/understanding by looking at other games or media genre analysis, and something I’ve been thinking a lot about is how speculative fiction ends up presenting a double hurdle. The creator has to present a strange/different world to the audience, and then, often, the difference between what is normal for the characters in that world vs. unusual/exceptional for those characters.

RPGs, however, have an additional layer; the group is both the creators and the audience, which means:

  1. You need the group to find a way to coordinate on what they’re creating – this either usually comes in the form of setting text, safety tools, guided or (most of the time) unguided discussion up front, or direct tools in play.
  2. You need to figure out what aspects are more fun for the players to know, but their characters don’t, vs. what is fun to be revealed to both the player and character at the same time.

Consider, for example, a religious or folklore belief of a character in a fantasy game:

  1. The belief is cosmologically true; the player and the character both know this.
  2. The belief is cosmologically true; the player knows this, the character is unsure.
  3. The belief is cosmologically true; the player is unsure (assuming a GM game, the GM knows), the character is played as believing it true.
  4. The belief is cosmologically false; the player knows and the character does not.
  5. The belief is cosmologically false; neither the player (again, assume a GM knows) nor the character knows.
  6. The belief is actually irrelevant to the events in play – it might never be proved or proveable in play. (Add in every possible iteration about player/character knowledge as well.)

Of course, in this case I’m using fantasy religion and presumably some thing like “Dragons are enemies of the gods” or whatever, but you could easily put in stuff like “The government is working for aliens” or “This elected official was against the war the whole time” or whatever is relevant to the setting/game.

Ah, but designing for this

Now also ask how you communicate this in a game text to a group?

A lot of older games in the 80s and 90s would have a GM section, where the “truths of the setting” were placed, however, this simply assumes players who won’t read it, or haven’t GM’d the game, or played in the past and been exposed to the “big reveals”.

I’m not even saying there’s ONE way to do this; several of these options might be better for a given genre, setting, or game, or worse for them. I do think, however, it’s a complicated idea about the roles of creator(player, GM, etc.), characters in play, and how we play them, and it’s not like you can simply shove a bunch of theory at a group and say “yeah now play this”.

The easiest way is that everything presented is both true for player and character; you don’t have to do a lot of mental displacement. The next easiest method is that the players have full knowledge while the characters may or may not have knowledge (common in a lot of horror games).

I don’t have easy solutions, but, as usual for me, mapping out the issue is the first step towards getting the navigation tools around it. My suspicion is that the solutions will probably be very game specific about “You know this vs. your character knows this” and that a broader theory would not be mentioned in any given game (or to a group you’re running with).

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Conflicts and Outcomes as Genre

January 4, 2021

For years I’ve been saying that part of what you’re trying to do when you start up a game is for the group to understand the what kinds of conflicts and outcomes make sense for this game you’re trying to run, and I only just realized the easiest analogy is to consider genre in movies or books.

Think about it this way: the kinds of problems that show up for protagonists are very different in a horror movie, a political thriller, a rom-com, and an action movie. In the same sense, the ways they go about dealing with the problems they face, are also very different. And finally, what kind of outcomes you can expect, are different as well.

Because everyone in the group is contributing to the events in play, even if they’re limited to only controlling one character, having everyone make sure their ideas, actions, and narration fit within that general category is critical to avoiding weird situations in play.

Now, sometimes genre is a perfect stand in – for example, if you have a book, comics, tv show, or movie series that the game is based on, you can use that to reference for what kinds of things fit or don’t fit. However, most of the time “genre” by itself doesn’t work because it tends to be too broad and you can have vast differences within it, or, for example, a media series that has gone on a very long time and changed tone repeatedly.

A well designed game will generally stack these things into the mechanics on some level, or at least give good procedures so the group can converge on the ideas appropriate for their game.

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Constructing Situation – process

January 10, 2020

I’ve been reading up on the Lancer mecha RPG beta, and got some ideas for a game I want to run later on.  The rules give you a broad setting, but you end up having to nail down much more specifics if you actually want to run a game.

The process of putting together notes ended up being a good chance to highlight some of the process and steps I use when constructing Situation for play.  (The broader process is the Flag Framing setup I’ve written about before.)  I’m skipping specific names of things or a lot of details, because they’re not as relevant as highlighting what this means structurally for running the game.

Setting vs. Situation

Setting is the broad background while situation is the specific scenario for the game/campaign you are going to play.   For many games, Situation is actually a key point in narrowing down what kind of characters fit for this particular run of the game you are going to do.

It’s not super important, but I do keep in the back of my head the fact there is “broad Situation” and “tight Situation” – the former is what I put together for this future game, while tight Situation would require actual player characters and their specific backgrounds, goals, relationships, etc.

So, you can have “The knights are defending a city under siege” as part of a broad Situation, but “Sir Morris’s cousin is a mercenary captain for the enemy troops” and “The Bishop is blackmailing Andrew to keep skimming supplies for himself despite the city in need.” etc.

However, you’ll see the steps I use for broad Situation basically tie into the tight Situation once you get to playing.

The Focus

Well, the Lancer RPG is primarily about mecha combat – so that’s obviously going to be a focal point for play.  I want to set up a “the crew is centered around a ship that travels” along the the lines of The Expanse, Firefly, Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop etc.

A star system being invaded, and, a military ship trying to take part in defending it.

What this does is facilitate certain things around the focus of play that I’m aiming for:

  • War obviously gets us lots of fighting mecha situations for the core focus of the game system.
  • Defenders vs. Invaders sets up clear broad sides to the conflict, and, defending your home is an easy moral high ground.  (Obviously, in actual play there will probably be a few grey areas that appear, but it’s not the same as “we’re the bastards, everyone’s bastards” kind of war story either).
  • A military unit has goals and objectives and it’s easy to keep the group momentum in a direction with in-fiction reasons.  (Also, while the player characters may not have the final say all the time, they certainly would have SOME input their commander has to take into account, so not a steamroll of their choices either.)

So this is how I tend to approach Setting and Situation- it either helps facilitate the focus for the game, or it can work against it.  Crafting carefully ahead of time lets you just get to the good stuff quicker and avoid misunderstandings.

The Groundwork

Now more specific ideas.  I was initially inspired reading the over the setting bit that the Lancer universe has FTL in the form of Blinkgates, but not every system has one – then it’s a journey of near-light, over several years, to get to the neighboring systems.

A question came to mind: “Huh, I wonder what kind of systems get accepted for new Blinkgates?”

The star system is rich in resources, but isolated by basically being sandwiched between an electromagnetically charged and dangerous nebula and a radiation jet firing off a quasar – they are stuck doing trade by having to go the long way around and sometimes lose ships from space hazards.

After several years of negotiation, they’ve gotten the Union to agree to build a Blinkgate there – the assessment delegation just left and it’ll probably be 7-8 years before the construction armada returns.

What this sets up:

  • The system is worth something, but is about to become worth a LOT more once the Blinkgate is installed.  A desperate warlord might hope to take over and basically retain control after.
  • It’s isolated, which means it’s not easy to call for reinforcements and the war is effectively a holding action until the Union construction fleet returns.
  • Being isolated in this way also makes larger scale piracy a rare issue for them, and in turn, the need for too much system defenses. (Pirates might want to try going for the goods on the other side of the Nebula rather than risk losing your ship inside).  The small military also means the PCs and their ship hold greater sway/value.

I’m also inspired by the Honor Harrington books, where a lot of their war issues involve considering that messages might take months to get back to central command, and this is effectively a similar problem.

The Night of War

So, if the star system is already outgunned by the invaders, what chance does the small ship have and why should it matter?

The ship is running through drills and exercise for anti-piracy operations – including laying low in the asteroid belt – which is when the attack comes.  The ship is off everyone’s radar, and by the time they receive the emergency messages – the attacks had already happened 40 minutes to an hour prior, due to time lag.

  • The ship has the one thing that has always served the outgunned – stealth.
  • The training exercises also make sense if the party is all going to be 0 level newbie characters – you take your new troops and run them through the paces and train, train, train.
  • The nature of being outgunned and possibly without back up for some time, means there’s room for discussion/argument about what to prioritize and where a small interceptor ship and it’s few Lancer mechs can make the biggest difference.
  • While everyone is talking strategy, it’s a good chance to give GM exposition about the star system and where everything is and why anything matters or what it’s history is.

Mind you, I have also written up a bit on the specific planets, major places in this system, culture, values, etc.  The players need stuff like this to make characters to begin with, but this opening situation allows me to either re-emphasize things as strategically valuable (“The research stations were used to figure out optimal Blink gate placement but also have a powerful sensor array – that could get intel on the invaders…”) or tie in the player character specifics (“Your mother and 2 brothers live on the orbital station above New Pacific.  They might be in danger… they might… you don’t want to think about it.”)

I generally try to find “opener scenes” like this that allow players a chance to ask questions, talk but also under urgency.   The first game I saw do this was Vincent Baker’s Poison’d, where the crew of pirates just found the cook poisoned the captain – and now they need to decide who the new captain is, before the British Navy catches up to them.

Thought Process

As you can see, what I’m trying to do when I set this up, is create a situation that funnels to the focus of play.  Once play begins, all the usual improv techniques apply, but the initial set up helps avoid problems and reduces the usual rough points early in a campaign.

Although we have a clear large scale conflict goal (“Repel the invaders”), I have no idea how the players will want to do that over the course of the campaign.  I figure I’d need to hash out some strategically valuable places, let the players basically argue for which they think is the highest priority and play it out as it goes.  Compelling and reasonable problems gets players thinking about solutions and directions, and allows you to also be surprised at the answers they come up with.

Unfortunately I don’t have a clear set of steps/process formula for this, but I felt talking about what I’m considering as I build Situation might help other people consider some things when they set up their games as well.

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Back from Big Bad Con

October 14, 2019

This was my second time visiting Big Bad Con.  They’ve generally made strong effort towards making more inclusive spaces, but this year included a lot more POC focal space which was nice.

It’s hit the “small convention going into medium sized convention” phase, which is where there’s still lots of fun personal stuff going on, but also a large enough group that you might miss people the entire time you’re there.

I spent most of the time hanging out with out-of-town friends who were stopping by in town, but I’m thinking next year I’ll run some small group games.  A couple of friends are folks who fell out of RPGs back in the 80s, so I’m really interested in hearing their thoughts about some of the new indie games since there’s been so much variance and change since then.

Goodies!

The dealers room is small, but carried a good amount of variety – the only thing which was unfortunate was I didn’t realize the small print showcase was basically time-split for various publishers – so it’s worth checking back semi-regularly.

I bought a few dice from Lucky Hand Dice, which I’ll probably swoop up more once the full site is up and their inventory is up.

Also got a hardcopy of Girl Underground, a portal fantasy game we’ve been playing a lot of and having a great time with.

Panel

I only made it to one panel – How to Stop Working When You Love What You Do, which actually had great info, across the board about different issues when you are working in streaming / media production & freelancing.  Some of the advice included hard lines about who can get use of your time (and at what fees), some on scheduling and checking time (especially with projects that can be infinite time sinks), and a lot around boundaries.

I’m pretty excited to check out next year’s con and plan a bit better on gaming and hanging out with friends.

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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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