Monday, October 12, 2009

Hey, you got your story in my game!

I have been inspired by a recent Canon Puncture podcast (recent being a relative term, since I just plowed through over a year's worth of shows in several weeks' time) talking about items to loot from independent RPGs to bring into traditional RPGs. The particular loot I decided to work with was player narration of successes, borrowed from InSpectres. With the players' approval we added this concept to our last gaming session using Basic D&D.

Here is how it worked: Players would make their combat rolls as normal. If it was a successful attack they indicated the damage done. I would let them know if this was a fatal strike or not. The play would then narrate a short description of the successful strike within the parameters stated. If they failed their roll I would indicate why they missed their target. The same also was applied when the monsters attacked the PCs. If the monster hit, I would describe the attack; if the monster missed the player whose character was being attacked described how they avoided the blow.

This led to colorful descriptions and everyone getting into the fun. The orcs they battled seem to be more fearsome and the characters more heroic as a result. The players all contributed to the description. The orcs took on more three-dimentional and individualized aspects - they weren't just a bunch of orcs the party had to hack their way through, they were worthy foes. One of the descriptions also earned a player a +2 circumstantial bonus on his next attack when he described with such color why the orc missed him.

Another wonderful scene in the combat was when a player described his fatal attack as knocking back the dying orc from the force of the attack. I picked up the ball and ran with it to effect the way the orcs reacted on their movement by holding the action of one orc, keeping him from rushing forward to fill a void in the ranks, as he held his dying comrade in his arms. The next round the grieving orc charged forward with blood in his eyes (the orcs passed their second moral check).

The descriptions did slow combat down a bit. We were only able to get through the major encounter with the orcs and do some retracing of their footsteps in the current dungeon, but no one seemed to complain. The battle with the orcs was made more memorable because of the interactive descriptions.

As a side effect, the players started describing some of the aspects of the dungeon they were exploring. This was pulling in another item of loot, namely scene framing and colaborative narration from Primetime Adventures. When one player's character discovered a loose stone and an empty cavity in the wall a different player called out to turn the stone around to see what was hidden in the brick. The adventure called for nothing other than a cavity in the wall filled with treasure, but I decided to take the two potion bottles from the treasure and embed them in the hollow of the brick (much like Ben Franklin's spectacles from National Treasure, from which the player was pulling this image). There was no harm in this, and I would not have kept the treasure from them had they not added this, but this one detail made the experience more vivid in all the players' minds.

I hope this was helpful in illustrating that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Our group enjoyed the experience and I'm sure these story game elements will remain a regular part of our play. Next I'll try introducing some scripted NPC-only scenes to give the players a greater understading of the story behind their adventures. I'll be sure to let you know how that goes.

Follow Your Bliss,


Friday, October 2, 2009

RPGs and Goals

In looking back to the beginning of my passion for RPGs I also decided to more closely examine the games that I played in my younger days. As mentioned before, I've been running several RPG groups using Basic D&D to see if it still clicks and, more importantly, why it clicks in the first place. The short answer is that it does indeed still click because it is cool. If you're happy with that, stop reading; if not, read on.

In related research I came across this definition of a game by Kevin Maroney. Perhaps this would give me a clue as to why I loved RPGs so much more than card or board games. In short,
"A game is a form of play with goals and structure."
Very simple and straight forward. Let's see how it stacks up against RPGs. I think it's safe to say without much argument that RPGs have stucture, some more than others (Role Master vs. GHOST/ECHO). Without structure it's free-form. Board games have structure. Card games have structure. Video games have structure. Cool, one down two to go.

Play, according to Kevin, is best defined as the opposite of work. It's a leisure activity; it's fun. We engage in these activities with the primary purpose of entertaining ourselves and others. Sure it can be educational or inspirational, if used to learn a skill or lesson it can be viewed as training, but at it's heart it is entertainment, pure and simple. Here again I think that RPGs, most card games, board games and video games are a form of play. Neato, two down. Now to tackle goals.

Kevin says

"The actions that players take in a game are directed toward achieving a goal."
The goal of Monopoly is to have the most money at the end of the game. The goal of the card game War is to be the one with all the cards. The goal of Tic-Tac-Toe is to align your symbols. The goal of D&D is...different for everybody, or at the very least can have a nigh-endless variety of goals.

Basic D&D can be said to have one implied goal (and no, "to have fun" is not it a goal, it's play) and that is to explore and adventure. Early games had all the power and information in the hands of the DM with players exploring the game world through their characters. This exploration was the motivation for the characters to delve into dungeons, suspense high as the party moved from room to room. Traveling the land the party is driven to see what was over the next rise. As such, exploration is open-ended, well, at least as far as the DM had finished mapping.

But exploration is not enough. Exploration should lead to excitement and adventure; adventure leads to wonder. Part of this wonder was never knowing what was next. This is why we DMs have that screen we hide behind. Don't look behind the screen, you'll destroy the magic! But adventure was reason enough to gird your sword and heft your backpack. Goblins moved into the woods? Let's clear them out! Dragon holding a princess random? We'll bring her back. To adventure!!

Soon each adventure became it's own goal - we have to get back all seven parts of the rod, we have to destroy Vecna, the schemes of the giants and drow must be stopped at all costs. Cleverly strung together these adventures goals would build into larger campaign goals. It only ended when the players decided there were no more worthy goals to achieve.

(Now once players realized they did have power in the game, they stopped blindly following the DM's carrot-on-a-stick, but that's a discussion for another post.)

Now, alignment can be argued as a motivation: we're Lawful, so we have to clear the woods of goblins. I'm not buying that. The way I see it alignment is the way you explore for adventure, not the goal in and of itself. However, it can be part of a self-imposed goal: I'm going to portray the best Lawful fighter I can so he can become a Paladin at 9th level.

Self-imposed goals are truly limitless. The ability to make your own goals in the game sets RPGs apart from most other games. Each player could have their unique goals and these could be layered with the goals of the play group. As RPGs became more story driven, characters were created with an eye toward more specific goals - I will reforge the broken sword and reclaim the kingdom. As RPGs continued to grow and evolve the games began to be written with specific goals in mind, but this rarely precluded a player/character defining their own goals in a game.

Bringing this back to the my examination of Basic D&D and current play, I see more clearly the implications of exploration and adventure. Adventure modules were written with very little in the way of story hooks. It was often assumed the party of adventurers had heard news of troubles and were riding in to save the day. And guess what, it's still just as fun today as it was then with nothing more than a goal to explore and adventure in the shared imagined space created around the game table.

I look at my players now and they don't question the reason for adventuring. Exploration and adventure are their own motivation and reward. They don't think twice when the Patriarch asks them to investigate an ominous fortress on the borders of their land. They jump in both feet first. And I find myself cheering along with them.

But this ability to have dynamic goals is magic. I can start to see each player beginning to formulate unique goals - I want to get my character to second level so I can cast cure light wounds, I want my character to get more money, I want my character to slay more monsters. No doubt they will soon turn toward different goals - what does it mean to be Traladaran in the Grand Duchy; I want to join the Elven Guard; I want to rise above the poverty that I was born into; I will bring faith to the faithless.

But this introspection has also raised a question for another time: What is the goal of the GM?

This post has come about as the result of a rather serendipitous journey started when I asked Judd Karlman a question about libraries and gaming and he responded with some links for me to explore. Thanks Judd for putting me on this path, I can't wait to see where it takes me next!

Follow Your Bliss,