Vast, Opaque Conspiracies; Small, Important PCs

January 27, 2011 2 comments

You know, we didn’t really plan to take basically a month and a half off, but let’s call it a holiday hiatus. I feel compelled to point out that this accidental break was all on me. Stewart, trusting person that he is, believed me every time I said, “No, don’t post. I just need to polish it a little more and then I’ll be done.” I may have been understating things. But! Now we’re back for 2011 to ramble about more roleplaying related things.

This is the third post in which I’ll discuss the campaign I just finished, Kjemmen. It’ll also be the last one where that’s the explicit purpose. In the first post, I talked about misunderstanding one of the players’ idea about his PC and the problems that arose from that. In the second post, I talked about some larger problems we had getting all the most important plot elements to occur in front of the players and some specifics about what our original plan was for the campaign and what went differently. In this post, I’ll finish up by giving a concrete example of the differences between players’ actual and perceived effect on the game world.

If we had set out to tell a story about a huge conspiracy in which the protagonists were to play an integral role, but the entire shape of which would remain a mystery to the end, I think we nailed it. That is, basically, what we ended up with as the campaign unfolded. There was a fairly substantial differential between the effects of the PCs’ actions and their perception of those effects. Bear with me as I set this up a bit, so you can see enough of the world around the PCs for me to illustrate what they couldn’t see.

The Second Assassination

During the early part of the game, the PCs spent a considerable amount of time investigating an assassination and trying to catch the assassin. This plot thread came to a head when the assassin broke into the noble house hosting the PCs (House Devrak) and shot the Count with a poisoned crossbow bolt from which he fell into a coma.

The Count’s son then came into power and, because he was a jerk, fired the PCs for several petty reasons. The sort of second-in-command made it pretty clear that if the old man woke up (hinting towards the PC with healing skills), he could probably get them their jobs back. As events unfolded, they decided not to worry about healing the Count (he was sort of a jerk, too) and so in a few days time he died and his son inherited control of the house.

There’s a political backdrop to all this that’s important: House Devrak had been the central power in a very tenuous alliance of somewhat smaller noble houses against the much more powerful House Verokha. The leadership and charisma of Count Devrak was basically all that was holding together this alliance of people who really would rather have been killing each other. When the Count died and his son was unable to bring the same force of personality to meetings, they almost immediately and very viciously fell to fighting amongst themselves. This, as you might imagine, was awesome news for House Verokha and, in fact, was why they’d gotten their assassin to go in and kill the people he did.

So the PCs letting the Count die, rather than doing some herbal research, buying some ingredients and riding in like a knight in shining scrubs, had a not-small impact on the local political climate and the players knew enough of what was going on to see that this decision had an impact.

However, if you recall my earlier explanation of the Bigger Plot, you’ll remember that Verokha (referred to in that post as “king”) is being manipulated by the head of the orthodox church in order to create a conflict with maximum bloodshed. So while the players could observe the political fallout of their choice, they couldn’t see the (much more interesting to them) conspiratorial fallout. By having the assassin kill his rival, Verokha had gone off script from what the head of the orthodoxy really wanted. So when the PCs didn’t save Devrak’s life and Verokha’s opposition melted, the head of the orthodoxy didn’t have the big bloody conflict he needed to fuel his god ritual and had to invent and then pivot to Plan B.

Messing with the Big Bad in that kind of way is awesome, but while not being able to see it (in this case because it was all happening in secret far from the PCs) might be realistic, it really isn’t that great. Basically, the players did this big game changing thing and to them it just looked like they happened to sew more chaos into the typically chaotic political climate of Kjemmen.

This kind of thing can be really frustrating to both sides of the table. On their side, of course, the players are feeling like they’re not having that big of an effect on the game world. On the GM’s side, there’s cool stuff going on that the players aren’t able to appreciate. This frustration didn’t ruin the campaign, by any means–everyone still enjoyed themselves–but it’s not the kind of story I think I’d try to tell intentionally. It’s also a sort of slight variation on a phenomenon that I think is actually desirable in a conspiracy-plot campaign. If you can set it up that the players end up learning about the fruits of their meddling after the fact, that can be very rewarding. In my case, I couldn’t really pull that off except in talking about the campaign with the players after it ended.

Categories: Campaign Post-Mortems

Penny Arcade is Wrong

December 15, 2010 1 comment

In their defense, they are not wrong about either of their areas of expertise: video games and producing amusing images accompanied by whimsical words. What they are wrong about is roleplaying. This comic and these news posts (the first and third) are the material I’m referring to. Don’t get me wrong, the comic is funny and depicts what I would guess is a pretty common event in the campaign life cycle for some GMs. However, the news posts reflect Tycho and Gabe’s more considered thoughts on the matter of GM burn-out and that is where the trouble starts, really.

GMing is Not Playing

False. Tycho asserts that “adjudication isn’t play any more than cooking is eating.” He’s not wrong strictly speaking, but neither should GMing be simply adjudication, which is his implication. If all we wanted was adjudication, we’d be playing video games. GMing should, ideally, contain a hefty amount of sampling as you cook, as it were. The creativity of world building, of playing NPCs, of constructing events and shepherding the narrative is no less rewarding than all the little creative tasks a player does when playing a character.

I am not saying that GM burn-out is fictitious or that people should just suck it up and keep on. I’m saying that dungeon crawls and XP/loot-centric campaigns are going to be really low on all the stuff that makes GMing rewarding. If the village your players are in is really only a place to keep your quest and equipment vending machines, then administrating those machines can hardly be called “playing”. So avoid campaigns like that and you’ll stave off GM burn-out.

Designed to Take New Players to Level 7

Gabe only mentions this in passing, but this is a big pet peeve of mine that is pretty common. It bothers me that this is even a valid metric for discussing packaged adventures, let alone the fact that it is often treated as one of the most primary metrics (behind the sensible metrics of what-system-is-it-for and what-setting/time-period-is-it-set-in). This kind of thinking is destructive to character focused campaigns.

Gabe also laments, “The Characters are all about level 25 now and I only have a few levels left to wrap this thing up.” He’s let the mechanics of D&D’s leveling system dictate story pacing to him. He clearly feels like he must end his story right around whatever the level cap is (30?). I wouldn’t be surprised if, early on, he felt like he needed to make sure his story was long enough to get the PCs from level 1 to the cap.

My point is that this all sounds like statistics and increasing PC power are at the forefront of the decision-making process. This often means that the PCs are very two-dimensional. If the PCs are two-dimensional, sustaining a rich, interesting world is all the more draining and so it’s easy and tempting to slip into the situation I discussed above.

The Solution is to Take a Break

Breaks are all well and good, but the kind of break Gabe talks about would really worry me; especially so close to the end of a campaign. If you’ve got any sort of normally-shaped narrative going on, you’ll have built up a fair amount of momentum to events. Stopping right before the climax dissipates all that momentum and getting all of you back up to speed and into the same mental place you were before takes a lot of work.

On top of that, Gabe talks about playing another game in the interim. Taking some time off because someone’s on vacation (or has family in town or whatever) is one thing and probably not terrible. Even taking some weeks off and still getting together to play board games isn’t going to destroy your narrative, depending on how you frame it. What is highly disruptive is getting the players to assume new characters, introducing them to a new campaign world and getting them invested in a new story. It just… seems so obviously ruinous to telling a coherent story to me.

The Details Just Aren’t There

I think when Gabe says, “I’ve always had an idea about how I would end it but the details just aren’t there yet and I haven’t really felt inspired,” there are two things worth discussing. The first is that it seems that he, as with many GMs, has some seeds of the ideas that Stewart and I espouse and just hasn’t followed them down the path as far as we have. He’s talking here about planning an ending which, as we’ve said before, is of paramount importance in maintaining a recognizable shape to your story.

The other part, the problem part, is harder to point out. There’s a sort of implication that having an ending in mind is seen as uncommon and another implication that planning that ending is seen as less than important. Or, anyway, less important than I feel like it is. Realizing where your story is going is probably one of the more important details that exist in your campaign. I don’t mean you have to plan out the big epic battle at the end (that’s losing focus again), but how the plot ends, how all the narrative threads get tired up (or left intentionally loose), how each PC changes, or grows or achieves their goal, how you get to the point where everyone that’s marked for death dies.

The Inevitable Caveat

Because this is the internet, I want to close with some clarifications. I don’t, frankly, know what Gabe does at his table. Story is difficult to talk about to people outside your group. Maybe it’s just that he only talks about the crunchy stuff in his posts because of that and, really, the story is foremost in his mind. Additionally, it’s eminently clear that whatever he’s doing is working. Which is to say, he and his friends have been having fun on a regular schedule because of his machinations, which is the most important goal, here, right? Regardless of how much Gabe’s process resembles or doesn’t resemble my own, he’s certainly achieving that main goal.

I am a huge fan of Penny Arcade and I don’t want anyone to think I’m hating on them in some kind of holistic sense or, really, in any sense at all. Rather, I just want to contrast some of the stuff they talk about with the ideas Stewart and I are espousing. They represent what I feel like is the most common case (give or take a bit) which holds many ideas that are contrary to those Stewart and I hold. Even amidst that, though, there are some gems of wisdom. Tycho is right, “you’ve got [to] pace yourself, man.” And, I think, if you’re going to go all out, it’s better to lavish detail on your narrative, your world and the characters inhabiting it, rather than on models of “floating-ass orbs“.

Categories: The Way

Failing to Entice Your Players

December 8, 2010 2 comments

This post, like my previous one, is sort of a post-mortem on my campaign called Kjemmen. In a sort of continuing theme, I’m going to discuss another thing that continually tripped Stewart and I up while running Kjemmen.

In the first post, I talked about how not understanding Mikejl’s player’s ideas about Mikejl’s personality and drives made it hard to draw him into the events surrounding him. This difficulty was not just localized to him but, to a lesser extent, infected the whole PC group. Given that the players should see everything important, this presented a problem for us. I will try to enumerate the causes.

The Most Decisive PC

Mikejl was often the PC calling the shots. In any social situation, one person will tend to bubble to the top and assume a mantle of leadership. In this group, Mikejl was that person. So our misunderstanding his motivations, paired with the fact that he was the most driving force amongst the PCs–the one most often moving the story forward–meant that if we failed to convince Mikejl that something was interesting, the other PCs often wouldn’t (either try or be able to) convince him to go anyway. Since this issue is the topic of my previous post, I won’t belabor why that happened, but suffice it to say that it did.

Fragile Plans

In retrospect, we had a few spots in the plot where we assumed that the players would hook up with one NPC or would want to be in one particular place, but we didn’t give enough thought to really making those choices the most attractive ones. This meant that there ended up being important stuff going on in places or near people that they really had no reason to go be at or near. Hearing about things via the rumor mill is sort of lame, and should be relegated to flavorful things or the-world-is-a-living-breathing-place kind of events. Major plots points should have the PCs present at least, and intimately involved ideally. This could probably have been avoided with some more attention ahead of time.

Self Preservation Instinct

After a certain point, it became clear to the PCs that the stuff going on in the city of Kjemmen was Seriously Bad and would involve potential for grievous bodily harm. There were a few times when the PCs knew some important plot thing was going on, but were very reluctant to go anywhere near it because there was a significant risk of terrible things happening to them. This indicates a major win in the department of players feeling like their PCs can die and in making the setting a threatening place full of bad people (a creative goal of mine from the outset), but man did it tend to keep them away from some interesting stuff.

What Should Have Been

Our idea was this: The head of the oldest order of priests (call them the orthodoxy) in Kjemmen was power-hungry. He had discovered a ritual that would allow him to ascend to god-hood, but it required a lot of blood sacrifice. So he told some lackeys that he wanted to start a conspiracy. The lie he told them was that he was tired of the newer orders and the nobility getting uppity and wanted to make them take themselves out. They would orchestrate an alliance between the new orders and some medium-sized noble houses against the most powerful noble house in the city and the orthodoxy. When things came to a fight, the orthodoxy would pull out and let the remaining combatants destroy themselves (which death the head of the orthodoxy would actually use to fuel his god ritual).

Let me clarify something about the nobility before I go on: They were more like mob families than anything else, really. There were constant, low-level turf wars between the houses and constantly-shifting alliances that could never really be relied upon (like Diplomacy!). Over a few generations, one family in particular had gained direct control over about a third of the city and forged alliances such that they had indirect control over about half the city. That family’s historical rival had forged an alliance against this big guy in order to try to stem his growth.

So the head priest’s lackeys went about convincing the most powerful noble in the city that the orthodoxy wanted to make him king. They also infiltrated the younger orders of priests and convinced them they could gain some considerable power by taking out the orthodoxy and their “king” with the help of the rival alliance. The rival alliance was the PC’s original contact point for our layer cake of conspiracies.

The original concept was that the PCs would start out hanging out with the medium-sized nobility and feel like the plot was about this other noble who was making a power grab. The “king” would look like the Big Bad. Eventually, they would discover that something else was going on and that, in fact, the younger orders were making a power grab and the “king” would look like a good guy for trying to stop them. Then they would discover that all the nobility were being manipulated by the orthodoxy and the “king” would seem irrelevant or, anyway, neither bad nor good. And pretty quickly after that, they’d discover that the orthodoxy was being manipulated by their leader and that he was the real Big Bad.

You might be able to spot some fragile junctures already. One of the biggest was that we expected the PCs to transition from one set of noble houses to the “other side”. We envisioned a sort of low point akin to the end of The Empire Strikes Back where their bosses threw them out and they had nowhere to turn. We expected that would sort of drive them into the arms of the “king”. Instead, they felt so defenseless and threatened by anyone with power, they managed to make a big, personal enemy of the “king”. And allying with him was basically our only route to getting in front of them the clues about the orthodoxy’s manipulation of the nobility.

Also, once they reached the point of seeing the younger orders’ power grab, which was about resurrecting the dead, evil god that all the priests worshiped, they decided being involved in a plot regarding that would be worse than an asbestos bath. This is a sane decision, and in a city which was supposed to be full of evil people (as influenced by the afore mentioned dead, evil god), having a randomly selected group of three decide they’re not the everything-on-the-line hero sort makes a lot of sense. But “and then we’ll hide in a basement and pray for a quick death” is really boring to roleplay… or really depressing.

In my next post, I plan to talk about what ended up happening after all and how it wasn’t as terrible as all my “fail” blog post titles might imply. For now, though, you can learn from some of the things that were less than optimal in my latest campaign. Robustness in planning to get central details in front of the players’ eyes is, I think, the biggest lesson I learned from all this. If we had had more than one way to bring the orthodoxy-run layer of the conspiracy to light, that transition in the story would have felt a lot more smooth.

Computer RPGs Cause Bad Habits

December 1, 2010 4 comments

First of all, computer RPGs are good.  Let’s just get that clear from the start.  In fact, some of my best friends are computer RPGs.    But we all know that they are a pale imitation of the tabletop hobby.  They’re a cheap high to get you by until your next hit of the real thing.  The biggest virtue of computer RPGs is their availability.  You don’t need a group of friends or a GM to play.  You don’t have to set aside time and coordinate schedules.  You just need a console or a computer and a game.

Because of this ready availability, there are a lot of people who have played computer RPGs that have never (or seldom) played tabletop games.  While most of the differences between them are apparent, and people can adapt accordingly, there are a few subtle behaviors that video games instill and reinforce that can be disruptive at the game table.*

Breaking the Game is Bad

The single defining characteristic of computer RPGs is that your character gains experience and gets better over time.  In most games, they also gain new and better equipment and/or new abilities and powers.  If it’s a good game, the choices that you make about which equipment to use and which abilities to develop are meaningful choices, which means that some combinations are more effective than others.

This is a really great system, because it rewards the player in two ways.  One, their character is more effective and more powerful, and as we’ve mentioned a few times here at Maximizing Rockmost, being good at things is fun.  Two, the player gets a sense of accomplishment because they “solved the puzzle” of which choices were good ones.  Essentially, most computer RPGs have a puzzle element built in to them.

When they carry this tendency into the tabletop game, things can get a bit hairy.  The rules systems that govern tabletop games are, on the surface, very similar to a video game.  The player makes choices about which abilities and/or equipment to use, and some of those choices are more effective than others.  If, however, one of your players seeks to “break” the system by exploiting holes in the rules or combinations that are particularly powerful (often called min-maxing) it can break the play experience.

One way that it breaks the experience is that it breaks the verisimilitude of the experience.  Abusive skill choices don’t tend to be “I’ll play a traditional knight with a sword and a shield.”  They tend to be more like “I’ll play a multi-classed fighter/conjurer with a specialization in force magic and dual-handed scimitars.”  Since the player is optimizing for effectiveness instead of flavor, they create a character that doesn’t mesh with the setting.  It’s jarring, and it makes it harder for all of the players (especially the person playing the maximized character) to achieve that optimal state where you lose yourself in the story and forget that you’re a bunch of people sitting around a table rolling dice.

The other way that it’s jarring is that when a player manages to break the game, they are usually significantly overpowered compared to the other players.  This makes for really miserable gameplay.  Either the GM keeps sending bad guys at the players that the fairly-built characters can deal with and the broken character dispatches effortlessly, or he sends suped-up bad guys that challenge the broken guy and makes the other players pretty much useless.

The World Does Not Revolve Around You

Do you know who the single most important person in a computer RPG is?  Your character.  In the video game, the goal is to make sure that you, the single player, have the best experience possible.  This is, without a doubt, a good thing. When you sit down to play the tabletop game, however, you are no longer the most important person.  There are some number of other players there with you, and their experience matters as well.

This seems obvious at first glance, but it’s an easy thing for people to lose sight of.  What’s fun for one player might not be fun for anyone else, and they may be so wrapped up in their fun that they don’t notice that everyone else is miserable.   This is obviously bad for the other players, but I also think that it’s bad for the problem player as well.  The best moments of the tabletop hobby are the times when everyone is contributing and having fun.  I strongly believe that player is having less than the optimal experience – by doing what they find fun.

A Totally Different Animal

The reason that computer RPGs teach bad habits is that tabletop role-playing games have a dirty secret – they’re not actually games.   In a game, someone wins and someone loses.  In a tabletop RPG, the players aren’t competing with one another, and they (hopefully) aren’t competing with the GM.  Tabletop RPGs are their own unique thing, a strange combination of improvisational storytelling and puzzle-solving and probability.  It’s an odd combination, but a highly successful one.   That combination requires other people to work, and so when you port it to a video game some things are lost in the translation.

*I’m explicitly not talking about MMOs here.  I’m sure that they have their own set of interesting foibles and habits, but I don’t know enough to espouse on them.

Categories: RPGs as a Medium

Failing to Understand Your PCs

November 23, 2010 1 comment

This is likely to be only the first in a handful of posts about a campaign of mine that just wrapped up called Kjemmen. It’s been a few weeks now and I’ve had time to mull over what went well and what didn’t and to talk to most of the players about their thoughts. The first thing I want to bring up is a mistake Stewart and I made before the campaign even started.

One of our players was creating a PC named Mikejl. He was to be the last scion of a noble house that was no more. His father had basically squandered everything and left the family indebted to another, larger noble house (the Devraks). This meant that Mikejl was effectively raised as a high-profile servant within House Devrak, but he hated it and them and especially the son, Likhander Devrak. One of the biggest driving forces in Mikejl’s story would be his hate of the Devraks and his goal of reattaining a noble title.

When it came time to flesh that idea out, Stewart had this idea of Mikejl wanting to regain the past glory of his family and hating the Devraks so much that he wanted to do it at their expense. Specifically, he had the idea that Mikejl hated Likhander so much that he’d want anything Likhander owned (or wanted) simply to take it away from Likhander. In this model, Likhander would be about the same age as Mikejl (about 27) and they would have this history of Likhander getting everything that Mikejl felt he deserved.

The player, though, didn’t like this idea so much. He explained to us this idea where Likhander is slightly younger than Mikejl (about 22) and much more bratty. There were some other things in there that we didn’t understand, so we tried to get him to explain again. And here’s the mistake: When the second explanation failed, we shrugged and said, “It’s his PC, we’ll go with his idea.”

Now, to be clear: the mistake was not going with the player’s idea. That’s solid and I don’t regret that one iota. The mistake is shrugging and agreeing to a player’s idea without understanding it. This was the central motivator for this PC and we failed to realize that not understanding it would make us unable to either predict his reactions to events or to put things he would find interesting next to important Plot Things. And this played out very quickly in the campaign: Mikejl ignored entirely things we thought he would find interesting and rewarding. We found it very difficult to entice him into plot events because we didn’t know what was motivating him.

After playing the campaign for roughly 2 years, I now know that the major motivator for Mikejl was power. Just about every action he took or decision he made was in order to increase his control over something; the current situation, his life, some asset, etc. This idea is no less good than Stewart’s idea and if we’d insisted on understanding it going in, we would have been able to use different stimuli to push and pull Mikejl into the events around him. I should say at this point, Mikejl’s player had a fun time and ended up being embroiled in the story just fine, so this wasn’t a game breaker by any means. It did, however, introduce some rough spots in the plot that Stewart and I had to furiously invent Plan B for.

The Takeaway

The real lesson here is nothing new if you’ve been reading this blog much: Create your PCs with your players so that if you had to, you could step in and play the character in someone else’s game. Somehow, Stewart and I let ourselves loose sight of it, so let this serve as a reminder of how easy it is to get distracted. Especially when you’re almost ready to start and you’re excited to get going, it pays not to rush things and make sure your idea of what’s motivating your PCs is the same as the player’s idea.

Minibosses: A Primer

November 10, 2010 3 comments

Most tabletop RPG campaigns are action adventures of some form, which is to say that they involve characters that go places and do stuff, and fighting tends to happen along the way.  This puts them in the fine tradition of action movies and most video games, and as such, they tend to have the same conventions.  Most of those conventions (eg. beating up goons with increasing levels of skill, picking up better weapons and allies along the way, etc) adapt to RPGs very naturally.  Today, we’re going to look at my favorite of those conventions: The Miniboss.

A Miniboss is defined by being:

  1. A bad guy
  2. Less powerful than the final bad guy
  3. More powerful than some random goon
  4. Distinct and memorable

There are basically two types of Miniboss: the Lieutenant and the Nemesis.

The Big Bad, Just Smaller

The Lieutenant is a powerful antagonist, one that requires the combined efforts of all of the PCs to defeat.  If we go back to the foundations of the modern fantasy tradition*, the works of the venerable J.R.R. Tolkien, we find the seminal Miniboss, Saruman.  He has his own army of Uruk-Hai to fight the heroes, he is more powerful than any one of them on their own, and the protagonists are forced to defeat him before they can move on to facing Sauron more directly.

The mere existence of Lieutentants gives a story structure.  They are defined by being powerful and crucial to the story, so it is easy to create story elements that deal with defeating them.  If your miniboss is an undead horror ruling over an army at the gates to the malevolent kingdom to the north, then your heroes first task might be to raid an ancient tomb where a weapon capable of defeating him is said to be buried.  Then they have to circumvent his army by passing through the Black Wood – but not before assisting in the defense of that one key castle from the evil armies.  Then, finally, they can sneak into his keep and do battle with him directly.  Only then can they turn their attention to the real threat.  Voila! Instant Plot!

Additionally, Lieutenants make for fun and epic battles without endless combat.  There are basically two ways to create epic battles – either your heroes battle their way through a tremendous number of lower-level baddies (think House of Blue Leaves from Kill Bill volume 1) or they have a fight with someone way better than them.  On the screen, these battles are fairly comparable in time and effort.   Scenes where the protagonists dispatches lots of goons with ease look awesome, as it gives them a chance to be totally badass.  In RPGs, fighting your way through dozens of lower-level baddies means hundreds of die rolls, and instead of feeling awesome, it just means monotonous and anticlimactic die rolls to kill yet another baddie.

The Decoy

There is an interesting variation on the Lieutenant that you see from time to time where they are presented as though they are the Big Bad, but it turns out there is something Bigger and Badder waiting behind them to be defeated.  This is a particularly common trope in video games (good job Mario, but the princess is in another castle), mostly because there is no sense of how long a game is supposed to take, so the player/audience can’t look at their watch and figure out if the end is approaching soon.   In films and books, you see this device more commonly in multi-part stories.  The Lieutenant is defeated at the end of the first installment, and then the real villain gets introduced.  Since I’ve already referenced Tolkien, let’s look at the foundation for Sci-Fi RPGS, Star Wars.  In A New Hope, Darth Vader is clearly presented as the Big Bad.  It isn’t until The Empire Strikes Back that we see the real villain of the story — the Emperor that is giving Vader his orders.

The challenge with Lieutenants is keeping them alive long enough for them to be important.  If Lord of the Rings were a role-playing campaign, when the players were faced with the choice of fighting through the snowy pass or going through Moria they would instead have decided to just sneak into Isengard and kill Saruman in his sleep.  This is why Lieutenants usually have armies of goons standing between them and the players – they provide more opportunities for the players to fail Stealth rolls.  On the other hand, this can also be a strength; if your players are particularly effective at short-circuiting campaigns by circumventing obstacles, Lieutenants become magnets for their ingenuity, giving them meaty problems to solve before they can turn their focus to ruining your plan for how the final boss fight is supposed to go.

Like You, Just Eviller

The other type of miniboss is the Nemesis – a character roughly on the same power level as the PCs who serves as a foil for them.   A good Nemesis has two characteristics: they show up more than once, and the players hate them.   Unlike the Lieutenant, the Nemesis usually survives deep into the story, only to be defeated in the final act right before the Big Bad.

I know that this is somewhat less nerdy than my usual fare, but a terrific example of the Nemesis is the “creepy thin man” (masterfully played by Crispin Glover**) from the first Charlie’s Angels movie.  He’s distinctive and memorable, so the audience/players notice and remember him.  He’s a match for any of the protagonists one-on-one, setting him apart from the usual goons to be dispatched.  Because of his skill, he manages to elude them on several occasions, and the protagonists really despise him.

I really, really like using Nemesis Minibosses in role-playing campaigns.  Powerful adversaries are a good thing, and I’ve found that players really like to have somebody that they can hate.  Lieutenants and Big Bads, by their very nature, tend to be powerful and remote, which makes it difficult for them to inspire disdain.  I mean, they can slaughter families and make their goons commit atrocities and the like, but it’s not the same as if you see them up close.  There is a very visceral feeling associated with finally defeating that annoying bastard that’s been bugging you and kept getting away.

The trick with Nemeses, like the Lieutenants, is keeping them alive.  In order for the Nemesis to be effective, you have to throw them at the PCs early and often, and they have to have ways to escape without the PCs feeling like they are being railroaded.   It’s advisable to give them some skills that make them naturally durable or able to escape at will – or both.

The Dark Image

The most common type of Nemesis is one that is a foil for a specific character in a story.  If Magneto is the Big Bad for an X-Men story, Mystique might act as a Nemesis for the entire team – she is formidable, but not so powerful as to take on the whole team at once (conveniently, she also has a power that gives her the means to escape). Sabretooth, on the other hand, is a Nemesis purely for Wolverine.   The Dark Image Nemesis has very similar skills and attributes to one of the PCs, and should be used to make that PCs life particularly difficult.  The fact that they are so similar to the PC somehow serves to make them that much more annoying for the player, and that much more fun to defeat at the end.

*Interestingly, Tolkien based his work on Danish and Norse mythology – where Grendel is another terrific example of a Lieutenant Miniboss.  The heroes are brought into the story initially just to dispatch him, and the first third of the Beowulf is devoted to his defeat.  Of course, it turns out that Beowulf is the smaller threat, and that the real Big Bad is his mother.  And then there’s this story about a dragon that’s kind of tacked on at the end to make it a trilogy. 

**I saw Crispin Glover once.  I was standing in line for a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse and he was there to present one of his indie projects.  He is In-Tense.  And short.  I mean really, really short.  It kind of threw me off.  The total effect was this little dude that looked like he could start a fire with his eyes and flip out and cut people ninja-style at any moment.  Just thought I’d share.

Categories: Mastering the Game

Conning Your Players

November 2, 2010 2 comments

In talking about the Firefly campaign, Stewart and I ran across something interesting. See, we thought we’d develop a (side?) plot in which the PCs get conned. It seems like the perfect thing to have happen in the setting and like it would present some fun moments. So we got to scheming and quickly discovered that we can’t just run a con on the PCs. Say you were going to run the Fiddle Game on the PCs. In the real world, you just have to convince the maitre’d that the violin is worth a ton and hope that he’s dishonest. He’ll assume he’s had fortuitous luck, perhaps, and get swindled.

In a game, however, if you tried to pull this on the PCs, you’re not letting them hold a violin, it’s a very obvious shopping cart. They’ll immediately ask what it has to do with what’s going on or what it might mean. If they can’t come up with anything, they’re very likely to get suspicious. This is basically because there is no such thing as luck in an RPG (I mean–dice rolls aside, of course). So if you are going to con the PCs, you also have to con the players. Whatever story the con man tells them has to make sense in the universe and has to feel like it’s a reasonable thing for you to have put in front of them. Basically if it doesn’t feel at least like a side quest (“Go bring me 12 were-trout fins.”), then they probably won’t buy it… and then what’re you going to do with all those cheap violins?

Some Examples

In Kjemmen, at one point, the PCs wanted something from an evil priest. Being, you know, evil, he wasn’t going to just let them have it, he was going to give it to them and also screw them over at the same time. The idea was to give them a magical artifact that would make the next step in their plan easier and also act as a homing device in case the priest wanted to kill them later, or whatever. But if you go to ask an evil priest a question and he just says, “Oh, yes. You want to go to the Such-and-Such place and in order to get in, you should use this great bauble that I’m happy to let you just have,” you’d be wise just to flee on the spot.

In order to make it seem less like the trap that it was, Stewart and I had to come up with something for them to do to “earn” the information and accompanying magical trap. However, it needed to feel plausible that the priest would ask some strangers to go do whatever it was for him. If it was too obviously just an errand, it would possibly fly under the radar of someone in real life, but an audience would be able to spot the trap a mile away. The specifics of what we came up with don’t really matter, especially since the PCs wound up doing an end-run around the whole trap thing and turning a few plot points on their ear all at once, but the lesson is, again: In order to con PCs, you have to con the players, too.

Another method is to hide the lie in something that players think of as normal in campaigns. If you wanted them to have some terrible, evil artifact, you could put it in the blacksmith’s shop behind the counter as his prized sword that he’ll never sell and possibly trick the thief character into stealing it. As a real world example, Stewart ran a campaign set in the fantasy old west. Pretty early on, we learned about his creepy old healer lady that lived in the woods outside of town. Being that this is a pretty common trope, it never occurred to us that she would turn out to be an evil, horrifying, mind-controlling witch who was trying to subsume the world in darkness.

Basically any time that an NPC lies to the PCs, in order for the players to buy it, you have to make the lie internally consistent with the world (like a lie in real life) and externally consistent with how stories are told. If What Appears To Be Going On isn’t roughly as believable a story plot as What’s Really Going On, then your red herring just won’t be followed. The players have to summarize the story they’re being fed in their head and be able to imagine you sitting down, having this idea for the game and thinking, “Yes. This is a good idea and will be fun.”

Categories: Mastering the Game

Finding the Heart of Your Campaign

October 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Much like any other creative endeavor, there are a lot of things that you have to get right to make a good campaign. You need good players who are both reliable and engaged. Those players need to be playing characters that they find challenging and fun. You need a setting and a story that gives those characters something cool to do.  And as a GM, you have to be prepared and on your game. You have to keep the action moving, keep all of the NPCs and details straight, and set the tone.

If you do all of those things, you’re going to have a good and enjoyable campaign. But even if you accomplish all of them, is doesn’t guarantee you a great campaign. You know that it was a great campaign when people are reminiscing years later about their characters and those awesome things that they did. Part of that is that the GM did a good job of maximizing rockmost – they made decisions and created situations that enabled fun things to happen. But there’s more to it then that. A really great campaign has a heart. The heart of the campaign is the overriding theme, the thing that gives it continuity and makes it feel like more than just a series of events.

Examples of Success

In Ver Jattick, one of the campaigns that Dann ran, the heart of the story was its history. The setting was one that he had played in years before with his friends. For our campaign, he moved the setting forward a few hundred years, so that the actions of his old players were now history and legend. When he described the city, it sounded like an old local giving directions: “Well you go up to Old Barney’s place, and turn right. Then you turn left where that barn used to be before it burned down.”

By itself, that history would have been a cool feature, and would have made the setting more interesting. But the thing that made it better, that took that history and made it the heart of the campaign, is that it pervaded everything. The characters all had dark pasts that tied them somehow to the larger story. The larger story involved uncovering atrocities that happened thousands of years ago. Some of the characters that were PCs in the old campaigns were still alive, though transformed by the years. The history of the place was inescapable. Consequently, when the story reached its epic conclusion, we felt as though the things that we were doing mattered. We felt like we were writing a new chapter in the history of Ver Jattick, and that our actions would determine the fate of generations to come.

In Kjemmen, the campaign that Ben is currently bringing to completion, the heart of the campaign is the feeling of deceit and immorality that pervades the setting. It’s a city built around the corpse of a fallen god of death, run by dark priests and warring nobility that more closely resemble mob bosses than refined lords and ladies.   Every person in Kjemmen has a vice; no one is pure, everyone can be bought and no one can be trusted. There are no good guys, just some people that are less bad than others.

Ben did a terrific job of making this feel real for the players. He gave the NPCs believable vices, and let them be revealed without being too obvious about it. The players were betrayed on all sides, and learned the hard way that no one could be trusted. In time, they internalized this feeling, betraying and distrusting one another. In most cases, having a pervasive aura of evil and distrust between the players would be a bad thing, but in this case it was a terrific success.

The heart of the story doesn’t have to be an abstract idea. I ran a fantasy campaign a few years ago in a setting called Bakad. The original seed for the campaign was that I wanted to try a world with unusual fantasy races and no humans. The whole story took place in and around a single city, and that city was ruled by an undying vampire named Toruf-Tar. I always felt like that campaign was kind of a failure. I had two threads in mind for the story, and I totally screwed one of them up and ended up dropping it. The final battle at the end mostly had the PCs standing around and watching while other people did things that were important.  My players, on the other hand, loved it, and I’ve never really understood why.

I think it might have been that I accidentally gave the campaign a heart, and that heart was the vampire mayor. From the beginning, he had a certain badass mystique about him, and the players were always excited when the story involved him or one of his two vampire lieutenants. The branch of the story that I didn’t abandon, and that I originally thought was the less important one, was about one of his former vampire lieutenants that had betrayed him and was thought dead.  As that story became more and more central, the campaign became more fun. In hindsight, it was obvious. Toruf-Tar was the heart of my campaign. He was what it was about, whether I recognized it or not. As events moved closer to that heart, they felt more significant and more fun.

An Illustrative Failure

A few years ago I ran a Fantasy/Old West campaign. The idea was to make it feel as real-world as possible, but with the addition of magic and fantasy races as stand-ins for the old west tropes. The Dwarves were the train engineers and barkeeps, the elves were the city folk from back east, he emancipation proclamation freed the orcs from slavery, the centaurs were the Native Americans, and so on. The campaign story was about a large, secretive construction project outside of town that was supposed to be an aqueduct but was really a cover for a secret gold mine. Oh, and the miners were being being tricked into unearthing an ancient hidden city full of terrifying monsters. The setting was cool, and the characters were great, but the story was weak. In hindsight, it just kind of felt tacked on.

The reason that the story was weak was that it had nothing to do with what made the setting interesting. The most compelling aspects of the setting were the racial and class politics represented and enhanced by the fantasy races. Not surprisingly, a lot of the best moments in the campaign came from scenes where that theme was central. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would try to find a way to make the story be about that instead.


For me, the lesson going forward is to add another criteria to the list of things necessary for a good campaign. Before play begins, I need to figure out what makes my campaign setting special. Then I need to make that a theme for the whole campaign, and come up with a story that emphasizes that theme. If I can’t find a theme, a heart, for my campaign, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Secondly, once I’ve found that theme, it should become a guiding principle going forward. In the same way that, when faced with a choice between two options I should be asking myself “What rocks most?” I should look at every major decision through the lens of the overriding theme, and make sure that I’m not straying too far off course.  If I can accomplish that, I can hopefully turn a good campaign into a great one.

Scene Construction

October 19, 2010 Leave a comment

SPOILER WARNING: I’m going to make some references to the plot of the movie Serenity below. Continue at your own peril.

In recent planning of my upcoming campaign set in the Firefly universe, Stewart and I realized that we had a scene that needed to happen pretty early on in the campaign, but we weren’t sure what shape it should take. To clarify, when I say “scene” in this case, I’m using it in the sense of, “A scene where the PCs learn about the ruins outside of town.” or “…where the Big Bad’s henchman makes his first appearance.” Knowing that something like that needs to happen still gives you tons of leeway in how it happens and that’s what I’m going to discuss today.

In our case, the thing we were worried about was Reavers. Basically, Stewart and I feel like Reavers have Been Done. They were pretty central to the movie and as space boogey-men go, they’re sort of played. So we’re removing them from the universe. Not in a meta-game, retcon kind of way, but in that the Alliance went and cleaned them all out after having gotten egg on their face. We wanted to convey this to the players in an in-game way, rather than just say it once before we got started. So we need a scene where the players learn that Reavers are over.

The First Idea

Our initial idea was to have them overhear someone using Reavers as an excuse; sort of like the dog ate my illegal cargo. We envisioned a scene where they go to meet Badger or some equivalent and see him finishing up with a previous meeting during which the hapless NPC captain says something like, “B-b-but we was attacked by Reavers!” and then for Badger to say, “Oh. Sure. Everyone’s attacked by Reavers these days. They must be slipping, though. Their victims’ mortality rates are suffering greatly. No, you prat! Everyone knows the Alliance cleared them all out months ago! You’re just late with your cargo and you’ve broken our agreement.” That conveys the information, certainly, and it’s passable, but as it was our first idea, we kept going.

The Cliche

The next idea was that cliched scene from all movies where you cut in and catch the tail end of a news report. I imagined the anchor saying something like, “–enate’s Private Security Liaison Office has announced that the government sponsored bounty on Reavers has been rescinded citing the fact that there have been no confirmed Reaver sightings in over a year.” That’s a bit more concise, but that is the only thing it’s got going for it. The first problem, and this is a big one, is that the news is going to be immediately untrustworthy to PCs in this setting. They’ll assume the station is an Alliance mouth piece and it might actually convey that Reavers have not been cleaned out.

Secondly, and this is a failing of the first idea as well, it is a major shopping cart. If you tell the players about something they’ve overheard, it’s almost as big a signal as a prop that this thing is Important and probably a Clue. They will likely perceive it as you going out of your way to make sure they heard something. If it is a clue and important and you want to make sure they know it, then maybe that’s a good tactic. In our case, we don’t want to give them that red herring. We want them to know it and not be distracted by knowing it.

The Actual Idea

We circled back to the idea of a contact and using Reavers as an excuse, but with a twist. See, one way you can slip in information without drawing attention to it (especially valuable for this sort of flavory, setting-establishing information) is to directly engage the PCs about it. Or, rather, bring it up in a conversation with the PCs. Now I’m envisioning a scene where the PCs come to Badger at the completion of a job and are late (or are simply accused of being late) and he says something like, “And what’s your excuse, eh? Wait. Let me guess. You were asked by a passing Alliance patrol to take some emergency medical supplies to Whitefall and, noble souls that you are, you couldn’t decline. Nono! It was Reavers. Were you attacked by Reavers? The last ship of Reavers, which has been pluckily dodging Alliance patrols and bounty hunters for months now came out of hiding to find you. Luckily, you escaped with your lives and managed to lose them before coming here or, clearly, we’d all be in very, very bad danger.”

This is hopefully elaborate enough (and we’d see if I could keep up his accent at the table for that long of a stretch) that it would embed the information in the players’ minds. Also, because we’ve directly engaged the players on the topic, they’ll feel more tied to the exchange than if they merely overheard it. Further, since Badger’s a snotty guy and his goal in this speech is to heap derision on the PCs there’s less chance that they’d get distracted into thinking that Reavers were some sort of plot thing. The more likely case, I’d think, would be that they’d start to think Badger being a jerk was a plot thing. What I’m saying is, the information feels just like flavor, as it should. It would also be at least a little funny.

Categories: Mastering the Game

Of Capes and Guns

October 12, 2010 1 comment

Once upon a time, I was really into comic books.  I know, shocking right? In fact, the way that I really got into RPGs wasn’t D&D (though it was the first thing that I played), it was the Marvel Superheroes Role-Playing Game.  For those of you who haven’t played it, it has most of the standard components for RPGs – characters had attributes, powers, and skills and they gained experience* that they could use to improve their abilities.  One of the things that made the game really fun was that the combat system did a great job of simulating the phenomenon of super-strong characters clobbering each other and emerging unscathed.  They had terrific maps of city areas where you could stage battles, and it was not at all uncommon for a character to get knocked off of a building, go through another building, fall 20 stories and then get up and come back for more.

As I got older, I became more of a fan of the little guy.  Thor was cool and all, but he was a pansy compared to Daredevil.  So I tried to use the same rules system to play grittier stories, with heroes fighting thugs with guns instead of aliens with forcefields.  It fell flat.   Why?  Guns.

God created man, Sam Colt made them equal.”

Guns are a big problem.  They’re cheap, they’re easy to use, and they are way more effective than most superpowers.  In the comics, characters only get shot when it helps to move the story.  Every other time, the bad guys miss, or the protagonist dodges.  In the Marvel System, guns were assumed to be largely ineffectual.  Daredevil could eat a couple of bullets and shrug it off.  This means that in order to make common street toughs seem dangerous, they needed to be carrying blaster guns and the like – which breaks the gritty, street-level tone that we’re striving for.

So then you decide that you’re willing to change rules systems to get that gritty, 3-color comic feel.   You pick up a system where guns and their damage are more realistically modeled.  Now you have a new problem: dead player characters.  Unless your characters are actually bulletproof, a fight with a few armed thugs is going to be lethal.

Let’s say that you’re playing Daredevil, or even my personal favorite, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  He’s agile enough to dodge bullets, and he has a nifty spider-sense to make sure that nobody gets the drop on him.  He’s in a fight with a few thugs – let’s say three.  He’s in a dark alley somewhere and he’s rescued that poor lady who was being mugged, and now it’s time to deal with the bad guys.  He spins a web at them, and they point their guns and shoot at him.

A full automatic pistol can fire about three rounds in a second.  So three thugs times three shots gives us nine rounds fired.  Let’s say that our thugs aren’t all that good with their guns, and only four of the nine shots are on target.  Let’s also posit that Spider-Man is agile enough to dodge the bullets 90% of the time.  So, his chances of dodging all four bullets is 0.9^4, or about 66%.  This means that 1 in 3 times, Spidey gets shot.  Those aren’t very good odds for our favorite web-head.

Now hold on a second.  People play realistic campaigns that use guns all the time, right?  And those characters aren’t dying left and right, so something has to be wrong here.  The difference is that in realistic campaigns that use guns, people use different tactics.  They take cover.  They provide covering fire.  They wear body armor.  Most importantly, they use guns themselves, putting truth to the saying that the best defense is a good offense.  In a truly realistic campaign, you should only be rolling to dodge a bullet when everything else has failed.

So what does this mean for our hopes of a gritty, realistic campaign using superheroes?  Well, it depends on what and how much you are willing to compromise.  If the thing that’s important to you is feats of acrobatics and martial prowess overcoming armed men, you’re going to have to use a rules system that tones down the lethality.

If you’re most interested in a realistic setting that happens to have superheroes in it, then you either need to make sure that all of your player characters can survive getting shot several times and shrug it off or you have to accept that they are going to look like SWAT teams with capes.  That’s the problem with realistic campaigns.  The realism tends to get in the way of the fun.

*The experience system in the Marvel system actually rewarded karma points instead of experience.  This system was particularly clever, as you could lose karma for doing evil things (including leaving bad guys to die), so there was an incentive for the players heroically.  This did a lot to preserve the comic book feel of the game.  Also, you were allowed to spend karma to affect critical die rolls.  I think that this is cool in theory, as you could choose to sacrifice character progression for the sake of the story, but in practice it removed a lot of the drama.  A lot of the suspense is removed when you know that you can ensure that you can’t fail that one critical roll.  That’s why I’m a fan of killing your PCs.


Categories: Mastering the Game