I liked Ocean’s 11. I also liked the two sequels. They didn’t change my life, and I know there are people who think they’re drivel, but I thought they were fun. I also like a lot of Ben Bova’s novels, the main characters of which are often scientists. Similarly, the Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy with very exciting geology going on (well, strictly speaking, it’s areology). Okay. That’s probably enough links to satisfy my neurotic need to supply context.
In thinking about what worlds it might be fun to play in and what kinds of stories it might be fun to tell, I often harvest fiction that I’ve enjoyed consuming. I’d heard a snatch of Caravan one day, which always puts Ocean’s 11 in my mind, and it occurred to me that running a campaign with a similar goal about similar characters would be fun. So I started brainstorming.
Eventually, I hit a problem: The part of those movies that is most fun is that you’re watching a plan unfold that you only vaguely understand. Then, things seem to go way off the rails and things get tense. In the end, though, it turns out that Danny was so smart that he anticipated various turns of events and the plan incorporated them. Seeing him be so clever is fun (and for those of us that imagine ourselves clever, as I think many people do, it tells us that smart overcomes all obstacles).
The key point I’m trying to make, here, is that the rockmost of watching the Ocean’s 11 crew work is the reveal. They know something that the audience doesn’t and the revealing of that knowledge and subsequent application of it makes them seem smart. A similar phenomenon occurs frequently in a certain class of SciFi stories (like the afore mentioned Bova and Robinson works): a main character knows about some aspect of the world that the reader does (and often can) not. For a particularly heavy handed and over-used example, see any Star Trek episode where Geordi saves the ship. The Next Generation examples fall flat because the big win comes from the audience gaining the understanding that the characters had all along.
After analyzing this story telling method, I’ve come to realize that it pretty much cannot be used in a collaborative setting. Which was both disappointing (because I like this device when done well) and exciting (because I think I’ve spotted a unique challenge in telling stories with RPGs). The nature of the players is that they are audience and actors simultaneously. This, at the suggestion of Stewart, I have started referring to as the “circular fourth wall”.
If a PC knows something crucial to the plot that a player does not and, trying to mimic the Ocean’s 11-style reveal, it comes up at a tense moment… well, then what? Do you just tell the player what his character has known all along? That doesn’t rockmost; in fact, you just stole the spotlight from the player.
Do you try to set up the knowledge ahead of time so that the player has it, but maybe doesn’t think it’s important? This is hard to do and also risky. If it works and they learn the information but don’t think it’s important they may not bring it up at the appropriate time (use of the phrase “appropriate time” is also a warning sign that you may be over-scripting).
Other times, this kind of leading the player into the situation just isn’t possible: Consider the scene where Danny is taken by the Big Bad into a room to get beaten up by a Tough Looking Biker. It is revealed pretty quickly that Danny somehow arranged to have that guy get hired by the Big Bad and to, instead, help Danny. Well, if Danny did that, then Danny’s player should probably have been there and known about it. So there is no reveal (I’m not saying it wouldn’t be cool, just not as cool).
Note that I’m not saying the story of Ocean’s 11 couldn’t be told around a table with dice. I’m just saying that you couldn’t tell it in quite the same way. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, since it’s a rather fledgling idea of mine.
This is Part 2 of a multi-part article intended to illustrate what we call “Dann-style” campaigns. I’ve created a ficticious campaign that exemplifies the various elements, and I’m laying out the story with interspersed commentary to explain the various choices. You can find part one here.
To review, the attributes of a Dann Campaign are :
- Well-developed PCs with individual stories.
- A mystery-based plot with a clear conclusion.
- A small group of players.
- A single setting, usually a city.
- NPCs with distinct and contradictory motivations.
And we have three PCs:
- Ratigar Estrava, an improvisational con-man working as a Palace Guard
- Alistair Macray, a magic-using physician with a hatred of bullies and a mean streak
- Drak Torva, a jack-of-all-trades working as a bouncer and moonlighting as a prize fighter
Ratigar had found the only honest guardsman in the whole goddamn palace. He’d heard Valeron’s reputation, of course, heard that he was the real deal. But he didn’t believe it until now. The man was just so… earnest. Ratigar (under his cover identity of Morisar Balefain) had worked his way up from front door detail to the kitchens. From the kitchens to the harem. From the harem to the King’s audience chamber. Now he just needed to get put on throne room detail and he’d be set. So he dropped a couple hints to his new boss about how he was really intrigued by the comings and goings of the court, and how he’d do anything to stand guard inside the throne room. Valeron just spat him some bullshit about hard work being its own reward and do the right thing. This is going to be tougher than he expected.
He met Tomari at the usual place and time, in the unused lavatory on the 4th floor. Tomari had found a way in that was as inconspicuous as it was unsavory. Tomari let him know that everything was going pretty well. Tomari and Fatel were making progress mapping the passages, and were slowly working their way up. In a few more days he should have a path all the way to one of the rooms near the throne, and then could burrow a hole or look for a secret entrance. The plan remained the same: first Ratigar gets put on throne room detail. Then, late at night, he kills the other guard with a poison dart and takes the jewels. He passes the jewels and the dead guard to Tomari and Fatel through a wall. They make their escape through the walls. Then, at the exit at the bottom, they leave the guard’s body, stabbed in an obvious fashion. Then Tomari lures Fatel away from the palace, kills him, and stashes his body someplace safe. The cops find the body, ask around about people who have been seen going into the caves under the palace, and then start looking for Fatel. Ratigar/Morisar stays on the job for a few more weeks, then says that he has to leave for family reasons. Nothing to it, except for one incorruptible guardsman.
Tomari says not to kill him – it would be too suspicious, and might tip people off that something is going on. The last thing that they want is more guards posted. What he has to do is work to earn the guy’s trust. They both knew this was a long con, right? There is one thing, though. Tomari and Fatel have seen some other guy walking through the wall passages. He hasn’t figured out yet where the guy is coming in from, somewhere further up that they haven’t mapped yet, but he’s going out the same exit that they’ve been using. They’ve had to be extra careful not to be seen.
Drak was just doing his usual thing. Hanging out at the Drunken Dragon, nursing a beer, and listening to the locals brag about things that they all knew had never really happened. Everybody in this part of town knew Drak, and they knew better than to give him an excuse to start a fight. It was the most peaceful tavern in Ballar-Dur. The only problem was when you got people from out of town – like tonight. Some trader saying that he’s from Avarka, but with an obvious Gravic accent. He had three guards with him, big guys in boiled leather, acting like they own the place. Drak starting sizing them up the second that they walked in the door. One of the guys looked like he actually knew his way around a sword. The way he checked the doors, kept his eyes moving. The other two were just dumb muscle. One of the dumb muscle, true to form, got a little handsy with Madira, one of the serving girls. Madira could take care of herself. She was the daughter of the captain of the guard and had learned a thing or two growing up around the barracks.
She was also Drak’s girlfriend, and he was eager to see what these guys were made of. He stepped in, towered over the seated guardsman, and told him that if he couldn’t keep his hands to himself, Drak would have to remove them. The guardsman took the bait and started to stand up. Drak reared back his fist and clocked the guy. He was out cold before he even stood up. The second guard, the other dumb muscle, started reaching for his sword. Drak kicked him in the knee, hearing it crack as he went down in a pile. The third guy was standing, hands free at his sides. No move towards his weapon. Drak grinned, popped his neck, and dove in. A few minutes later, the trader and his men were leaving, with the polite suggestion from the barkeep that they may be happier at a different establishment.
Alistair was seeing a patient when Illion came in. His patient was an interesting case. The son of a duke, he had gone missing while the Duke was visiting the palace. A few days later the kid turns up, walking the streets with no idea who he was or what had happened. He told his distraught parents that the boy had probably fallen and hit his head, if he could study him for a few more days… but no, they were eager to leave the perils of the big city behind. So this was his last chance to study the boy, to figure out why he had such a strange mental signature. But Illion, who was usually so unflappable and easygoing, looked distraught and that was reason enough to cut short his examination.
After some interrogation, Illion reluctantly admits that his anxiety is because their mentor at the Academy, Makarandas, has been asking him to do some pretty strange things. Illion was an architect. He could shape living stone, create spaces that appeared larger on the inside than out, and create magical traps and locks. Makarandas had recently been tasking him to scout the palace, starting with its outer walls, and slowly moving his way inward. He was originally told that it was a research project, that Makarandas was studying the building practices of the Drunar. But as the weeks have gone by, it’s become obvious that he’s planning on entering the palace by stealth somewhow. Illion doesn’t know what he’s up to, but it is clearly illegal, and he’s worried that Makarandas has gotten into something over his head. Maybe Alistair can figure it out, and talk him out of it? Of course, he can’t let Makarandas know that Illion told him anything.
After his chat with Tomari, Ratigar decided to go and find Valeron and talk to him again about how much he’d rather be working on a detail where he could observe the political intrigues of the court. To his surprise, Valeron was excited by the idea. The king had a new advisor, a deposed Granic count named Gakhara. Ratigar was aware of this, as everyone was quite scandalized by the King bringing in a foreign adviser from Ballar’s main rival. Valeron was worried that there might be an attempt on Gakhara’s life, so he was posting guards outside his chamber. Since Morisar (Ratigar) wanted to be closer to the political action, he seemed like a good fit. And if he should happen to catch Gakhara doing something that he shouldn’t, well then maybe they could talk about finding him that position in the throne room.
Valeron escorted Morisar/Ratigar to his new detail, and as they approached the Count’s quarters, they heard the sounds of steel on steel. Someone was trying to kill Count Gakhara! Valeron and Ratigar sped to the fight, where they found two wounded guards trying to hold off four armed attackers. Ratigar and Valeron drew swords and set upon the assassins from behind. Ratigar was not an excellent swordsman, but he held his own and the assassins were quickly dispatched.
Drak rented a room in a block near the Drunken Dragon, and was happily walking there, with his arm slung around Madira’s shoulder. The brawl had put him in good spirits. Waiting in front of his door were three men, Botha and two of his goons. Botha was an underboss in the syndicate, a mid-level crimeboss who organized the fights. Drak’s pleasant mood disappeared. Botha told him that they had a big fight coming up in a couple days, an important fight, with important people in attendance. And those important people and their important money meant that everything needed to go just right. Including the fight itself. And the best way the night could result would be in a big upset. Maybe if the champ went down? Perhaps in the fifth round?
Drak reminded Botha that he wasn’t for sale. Botha commented that every man has a price, and that there are certain men that are even willing to kill if they are paid handsomely enough. As he said this, he ran one hand down Madira’s cheek. Drak slapped his hand away, and nearly punched Botha as his thugs reached for their shortswords. But he was able to restrain himself, and simply told Botha that if he wanted a fixed fight, he should find a different fighter.
Alistair left his office to go home, wondering how he was going to possibly speak to Makarandas. His mentor was proud, shrewd, and imposing. A large, boisterous man with a bushy beard and a towering presence. He would not take well to having his motives questioned. Perhaps if Alistair just asked him what he was working on these days…
Alistair’s concentration was broken, as he heard a noise behind him. He came out of his thoughts to realize that the road he was walking down was darker than usual. And that there were two menacing-looking men blocking the other end. He turned around to see another man approaching him from behind. They seemed to be carrying some sort of clubs. The men informed him that if he were to relinquish his personal possessions, he needn’t be harmed. He replied that if they were to turn and leave now, he may let them live. Unfortunately, Alistair was not carrying his physician’s staff, but he liked his odds against three ruffians. And besides, he hated people that tried to use their physical strength to exploit the weak.
He started muttering something, and then turned and threw a green ball of light at the man closing behind him. He collapsed to his knees, blinded. He ducked and stepped back, evading blows as he started casting. One of the blows struck him in the side, and he grunted in pain. A man of lesser will might have lost his concentration, but Alistair relished the opportunity to show that intellect was mightier than muscle. The next time that one of the men swiped at him, he stepped aside and then grabbed his arm. Under his touch, the limb withered and turned. The third man screamed in horror, then fled while he was still unarmed. Alistair picked up a cudgel from the ground, carefully aimed, and struck his assailants on the head. Then he withdrew a scapel from his robes and carefully, surgically, slit their throats. He cleaned his scapel, sterilizing it by coating it in flames, and then cast a spell to heal the bruises on his side.
So, how to approach Makarandas…
This is roughly one session’s worth of play, and is fairly typical of a first session. Each of the PCs is given an obvious plot hook to start chewing on, an example of what their routine life feels like (before the events of the campaign disrupt it), and an opportunity to practice their major skills. I also try to find a way to work each PC into a combat in the first session, even if it’s obviously forced. I’m not a believer in random encounters or meaningless fights, but I think that the first couple sessions serve to let the player feel out what their character is capable of, and that should include a fight that they are likely to win. Later, when the fights matter more and the stakes are higher, they have an idea of what their capabilities are.
I’ve also subtly introduced some of the major NPCs: Tomari, Fatel, and Valeron for Ratigar (aka Morisar), Illior and Makarandas for Alistair, and Madira and Botha for Drak. In traditional RPGs, the NPCs serve as a background cast for the PCs — they are the enemies, the allies, the contacts and obstacles. In a Dann-style campaign, the NPCs are both the story hooks that draw the PCs into what is really going on and the various actors in the larger conspiracy. As such, it is critical that the important NPCs are introduced early on, and that they seem to have distinct personalities and motivations.
The PCs have not met at all, and seem to be pursuing completely different stories. This is very deliberate. One of the goals of the Dann-style campaign is that every PC is the star of their own movie. When the whole campaign is over, they should each feel like they had a complete story that revolved around them, with the other PCs as part of their supporting cast. One of the ways that this is accomplished is giving them each their own problems that they are dealing with. As the story progresses, of course, their seemingly separate problems will all turn out to be related somehow (much like a William Gibson novel).
With only three players, it’s possible and desirable to let people explore in the world a little bit and figure out what their personal story is before they encounter the other players. If you throw them together too soon, the strongest role-player tends to dominate, and it just becomes their story. With four players, I find that I have to accelerate things a little bit more, but that’s another post.
One of the characteristics of the Dann Campaign is that there is some sort of conspiracy-based mystery, and the need to let each character have their own story is a big part of that. A conspiracy, by it’s nature, involves different parties, each conducting their own part of some larger plan. So you can build a conspiracy that somehow touches on each PCs’ sphere of influence. The story (and explanation) continues in Part 3.
I learned a lot of my GM-craft at the hands of a guy named Dann. Dann got his start, like most of us, playing the typical campaign style: a set of characters progress through a series of one-shot adventures in a fantasy setting. The characters continue to accumulate experience, powers, and equipment until the players get bored. End of campaign.
When he started GMing a series of Vampire: The Masquerade campaigns (using GURPS instead of White Wolf) in college, however, he developed a new formula. I don’t honestly know if he engineered it or it evolved organically. When I started playing in his campaigns he was no longer doing Vampire campaigns, but kept the formula and ported it to other genres.
In addition to adhering to the guidelines laid out in The Way We Do Things, the features of a Dann campaign are:
- Well-developed PCs with individual stories.
- A mystery-based plot with a clear conclusion.
- A small group of players.
- A single setting, usually a city.
- NPCs with distinct and contradictory motivations.
It’s a highly successful formula, and the various pieces interact in surprisingly synergistic ways. The Dann Campaign is the baseline from which Ben and I build campaigns, and thus I feel that explaining it in depth as a foundation for future posts is called for. So I’m going to describe a fictitious (and relatively simple) Dann campaign, over the span of several posts with some interspersed commentary on the particular choices.
Ballar is a fairly standard fantasy kingdom. It is a monarchy, led by Arturas Maravos, the descendant of Arnis Maravos, who conquered the Drunar, a nonhuman (vaguely elven) race of evil necromancers that once ruled the land. Ballar-Dun is the capital, a walled city built around an ancient Drunic fortress that the king uses as his palace. The technology level is relatively standard fantasy fare. Steel, chainmail, mounted knights, crossbows. Magic exists, and is practiced by scholarly types in ivory towers. They could, theoretically, throw a ball of fire if that were their area of study and the circumstances called for it. The only formal school of magic is located in Ballar-Dur, and is simply referred to as the Academy. Ballar-Dur contains roughly 30,000 people, and is the largest city for many miles. It has a larger middle class than the surrounding hamlets, consisting of skilled tradesmen and merchants. It also has a larger population of beggars and thieves, including an organized crime group called the Syndicate.
I deliberately chose a fantasy setting for easier compare/contrast to standard D&D-style dungeon crawling (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In practice, the Dann model works for pretty much any setting. I’ve played and/or GMed campaigns using this formula in fantasy settings, a primitive polynesian island, modern-day mexico, and the old west. The only constraint is that the location needs to have specific borders. The non-mission based storylines give the players a lot more latitude about where they go and what they do, and it is important to give them some clear indications of which places are out of scope.
Ratigar Estrava, Palace Guard. Ratigar never knew his parents, but he knew the streets. He knew how to steal an apple when the grocer wasn’t looking. How to bump a man and cut his purse. How to fight and how to run. Especially how to run. He survived, and he learned. He learned a knowing smile opened more doors than a sword. He learned that you could make more money selling a noble a stolen horse than you could by robbing them. He learned the feel of nice clothes, the taste of good wine, the touch of beautiful women.
And he also learned that a really good scam requires more than one man. He met Tomari when they were both trying to con the same mark. They saw reflected in each other the same combination of competence and ruthlessness. Tomari comes up the with the plans, convoluted schemes engineered to make someone think that they lost their money but were lucky to have escaped with their lives. And Ratigar would execute those plans, improving and tweaking them along the way as the circumstances allowed. So when Tomari said that he’d come up with a plan to steal the crown jewels, Ratigar was quick to listen. And once he’d heard the plan, it was clear that the hard work would fall to him.
So Ratigar enlisted in the City Watch. A few weeks and a well-placed bribe later, and he was manning one of the gates. A few more weeks, a few more bribes, a new job in the palace guard. And so it went, maneuvering his way into a position of trust. The problem wasn’t getting the jewels. The problem was getting the jewels and then getting out of the palace. But Tomari knew a guy, a real cave-rat named Fatel, who found a way into the ancient tunnels under the palace. And while Ratigar worked to get on throne room duty, Tomari was mapping the tunnels and planning the escape route. And along the way, if Ratigar happened to find himself in a position to take a few bribes and trade some favors, well that was all the better.
Ratigar is charming and approachable, with a disarming smile. He is always smooth, regardless of the circumstances. He has a knack for suggesting bribes in a way that is clearly understood, utterly deniable, and completely relaxed. He moves and thinks quickly, and never seems to be at a loss for words. Ratigar prefers talking to fighting, but he is a vicious and merciless fighter when he has to be. His brief time in the guard has taught him how to use sword, shield, pike, and crossbow and how to properly wear armor. He’s still more comfortable fighting in loose-fitting clothes with knives or hands, and he always keeps a knife hidden on him somewhere. Ratigar’s biggest strength, his ability to think quickly on his feet, also tends to be his undoing. He’s not one to stick to a plan if he sees a new opportunity that looks better, and he tends to follow his gut and act on a hunch before his head can explain why it was a good idea. He also gets greedy, taking little risks that jeopardize the long con. He’ll steal the mark’s jewelry while they’re passed out, confident that he can convince them that somebody else did it and he fought valiantly to defend them.
Alistair Macray, Physician. Alistair’s father was a minor lord in a small, rural house. He came from a long line of hale, hearty, ruddy-faced farmers, and ruled his people well. Alistair was his tenth, and youngest son. His mother died in childbirth, and he was a sickly child. His brothers were tall and strong, petty and savage the way that young boys can be. Alistair discovered that he had The Gift while learning his letters at the hands of his father’s elderly magister. He was reading aloud the story of the battle of Tanrin, the fall of the ancient Drunic lords. As he spoke, an image appeared in the air of the battle, Arnis the Bold, the first king of Ballar, striking down Azatrael, the Drunic wizard-king.
The magister began instructing him in the ways of magic, and found Alistair to be a quick study, particularly in the realms of magic that dealt with the manipulation of the flesh. Alistair’s first practical experiment was to cause his brother Odgar to vomit during his 16th birthday party. Then he made all of Tomas’s fine blonde hair fall out one night when he slept. On the day of Alistair’s 14th birthday, one of the servants spilled a drink on him. Everyone laughed and pointed. Alistair began chanting, and the servant’s arm withered and turned before everyone’s eyes. The laughter stopped.
After that, Alistair was sent away to Ballar-Dun, the capital of the kingdom of Ballar, to study magic. His banishment was a happy one. For the first time he met other people like him, who preferred speaking to animals to chatting up barmaids and battles of wits to battles of blades. He made his first real friends at the Academy, and he treasured them. His early studies in flesh manipulation turned into studies of healing, first the flesh, then the mind, then the soul. He still learned the basics of other disciplines, of course, how to ignite tinder, create light in a dark room, levitate small objects. But each Sorceror has a specialty, and his was healing.
Of course, with the knowledge of how to mend flesh comes the knowledge of how best to rend it. And the tools needed to enter someone’s mind and find what troubles them can also be used to pry open their darkest secrets. Alistair was not afraid to use his powers in such a manner, in ways that were forbidden by the elder Magi. He would tell himself that he would only do so to people who deserved it, but in truth, Alistair had become much like his brothers. He was strong and powerful, and he craved the respect and dominance that came with that power. He found that many of his peers were weak, afraid to use their power, and easily intimidated. After he completed his preliminary studies at the Academy of Magi, he established himself as a physician for the nobility of Ballar-Dun. He charges a high fee, and refuses to leave the city, but still is in high demand with nobility suffering from obscure ailments traveling from distant duchies and even other kingdoms to seek his aid.
Alistair is a man of powerful intellect and powerful emotions. He is a loyal and protective friend, taking a slight against his chosen comrades as a slight against himself. He hates bullies, particularly those who remind him of his brothers, but he himself is a bully, using wit, wealth, and wizardry to put people in their place. He has a quick temper that can sometimes get the best of him, and a ruthless viciousness that surprises those who only know him as the gentle doctor. He can be quite charming when he chooses to be, and is well-skilled in the social graces of the upper classes. He is in good physical health, but is not particularly strong or athletic. He is utterly useless with a sword and takes special care to never need one. He carries a wizard’s staff, styled as a cadaceus with intertwined snakes curled about a green stone at it’s head. While the staff serves primarily as a focus and a power source to draw upon, he can defend himself with it when there is no other recourse.
Drak Torva, Bouncer. Drak’s father was a blacksmith. So he learned his way around the forge as a kid. But being a smith never really held his attention, so when he was fourteen he ran away with a band of tinkers. He learned the tinker’s trade for a couple years, mending broken tools, patching torn clothes, stealing when it was necessary to survive. They were good people, joyous and kind, but it was a hard life and he got tired of wandering. So when they passed through Ballad-Dur, he said his goodbyes. He found work as a mason, a carpenter, a smith. It wasn’t that Drak was lazy, far from it. He was a tireless worker, and he took pride in doing a hard day’s work. He just always felt like there was something else that he was supposed to be doing.
When Drak was 23, he signed on with the city guard, and it was there that he found his calling. The guard taught him how to fight, and he was good at it. The rest of the job, the rules, the uniform – that wasn’t really for him. But he liked the fighting. So when he found out about the underground boxing matches run by the Syndicate, he couldn’t resist. He signed up for a bare knuckles match under a fake name. His opponent was the current champ. Drak killed him. Two days later he quit the guard and took a job as a bouncer at the Drunken Dragon. He mostly just hangs out at the bar and looks menacing so that nobody causes trouble. He makes his real money in the fights, betting on himself. The Syndicate owns the circuit, but they don’t own him. He won’t take a bribe, and he won’t throw a fight. It’s not that he’s a saint, or feels like what he does is noble. He just doesn’t have it in him to lose on purpose.
Drak is big, strong, and casually menacing. He doesn’t feel the need to talk or threaten people. If somebody is out of line, he hits them until they cease to be a problem. Drak likes to fight, and relishes the opportunity, but he’s no bully. He won’t hit a girl, he won’t beat a child, and he won’t hurt innocent people. Drak’s never been much for rules or laws, but he believes in right and wrong, and the value of doing the job right. Once he decides that he’s going to do something, he will see it through to the end, regardless of the consequences.
I deliberately chose variations on some of the classic D&D-style character archetypes, the Thieft, the Wizard, and the Fighter. Since it’s not a setting where plundering dungeons filled with treasure is a suitable profession, they have other jobs that are more appropriate. In a real campaign, the PCs tend to fit less neatly into these categories. A PC in this setting could just as easily be a court jester (social skills, high dexterity, juggling, acrobatics, sleight of hand), a blacksmith (high physical strength and health, some weapon skills, merchant), or a beggar (social skills, streetwise, scrounging, some combat).
The important thing is that whatever the player wants to play, the resulting PC has the right sort of characteristics (more on that topic in a later post). Aside from that, these are relatively typical PCs for a Dann-style campaign. They have things that happened in their pasts that can be brought back later if needed. They have ties to the setting, be it jobs, friends, or family. And they have character flaws that will affect the way that they handle situations.
Stewart and I do things in a way that I would characterize as atypical. In order that people can better understand the posts we make on this site, I thought it would be best to be explicit about how we run a game. What follows is a summary of a lot of our core beliefs. Some of them might get bigger posts later that go more into the why of it.
To us, a campaign is like a book: it has a beginning, middle and end. There’s some unifying plot that ties it all together. When the plot is done, those characters go away and you read an entirely different story (please ignore Robert Jordan for purposes of this analogy). A lot of people think of a campaign and the game as one and the same. They might be confused or skeptical about the same group of people just putting down one group of characters and making new ones.
Campaigns without an end point in mind from the start can last for years and years and they generally increase in power level (trying to out do themselves over and over) to a place where the characters are fighting gods or eating planets or something suitably EPIC. People have fun doing this and that’s great for them, but it’s not for us. We think it starts to feel like a TV show that’s been running too many seasons in a row (better bring in Henry Winkler and some skis). We like a narrative arc and to pick the amount of epicness from the get go and have it be relatively stable. Also, having campaigns with a designed ending lets you change settings and try on a lot of different ideas.
Though we’ll try to keep most of our content system agnostic, our system of choice is GURPS. You can follow that link or not, but suffice it to say that it stands for Generic Universal RolePlaying System. It’s basically a toolkit of rules without any setting information (contrast the famous Dungeons & Dragons, which demands a certain way that magic works, assumes that magic exists, assumes a fantasy pseudo-medieval technology level, etc.).
One of the things I like about this aspect is that you can play a D&D-like fantasy campaign to completion, then play a space opera and then play a police procedural or something. The ability to try out one thing for a while (lengths of my campaigns vary wildly, so take that with a grain of salt) and then entirely change gears for the next campaign is a big draw for me. As a GM, I really enjoy the world-creation aspect and so I’m constantly thinking about what worlds would be fun to play in and what stories would be fun to play out in them; what kind of interesting people might live there. You get the idea. That’s not the only reason I like GURPS, but I don’t want to evangelize too much.
Another thing we do that I’ve heard very few people talk about is that I’ve got a GM consultant, Stewart (the other poster on this site). This is new as of my most recent campaign, but it’s worked out so well, I can’t imagine why I’d stop doing things this way unless Stewart turned into a player. Basically, after introducing me to GURPS, Stewart moved away and, in order to get his role playing fix, offered to help me hash over things with the world building of the campaign I was thinking of running.
I strongly recommend this technique to every GM that can swing it. Having two minds on the task is an incredible boon, as long as you work well together. Your NPCs will seem more real and your world can afford to be more complex. It’s easier to track more events happening at once and you’re both going to think of cool things that the other wouldn’t have. I feel like it’s been multiplicative rather than additive to the quality of the campaign world.
Unlike other “co-GMing” plans I’ve heard, Stewart doesn’t have anything to do with the actual play sessions themselves. After each session, he and I get on the phone and I brief him on what just happenned, then we start brainstorming about what might be up next.
Let Me Get You Alone
Most RPG groups make a “party” or other group of characters that more or less always act in concert. They make decisions together and go do things all as a group. Lengthening the parade of unconventionality, that’s not how we do things. If your character is not in the scene, you’re not in the room. For some campaign settings, that means players (especially early on) can spend a non-trivial amount of time in my living room playing Rock Band or whatever instead of role playing.
The win, however, is that by containing information, you can, for instance, more easily dole out clues to each of the players and have them piece it together later when they’re all in. This is maximizing rockmost for the players, not for the GM, I should note. The other thing it does is it lets each player get used to his character and how to play him without the noise of other players doing the same thing; to establish a sort of a base line. It takes a while to really figure out how to inhabit a character you’re playing and unlike other kinds of acting, there aren’t really rehearsals.
And The Rest
There are various other things we do that aren’t so rare: We require that players make their characters with us, rather than on their own. We require that they stick to the personality, goals, etc. they’ve outlined for us and, if they’re deviating, we either need to adjust their play or adjust the character so that it reflects what they’re finding most fun. We require role play, which might seem like a no brainer to some, but I’ve been in games where the players spend more time debating (out of character) which spells to memorize than they spent speaking in character.
I hope this establishes a bit of a baseline for our way of thinking. If you have any questions, leave a comment and we’ll try our best. Just know that the answer might end up being that we’ll cover the topic in more depth later on.
One of the things I think folks who share this hobby all struggle with is how to explain it to the uninitiated. Unlike really obscure hobbies no one’s ever heard of, people have some notion of what it entails, but unlike really popular hobbies that everyone’s heard of, many of those notions are wrong, vague or confused with other, similar hobbies.
I’ve heard a lot of our folk say that their main tactic is to just say, “Like D&D,” and then change the topic. While that’s expedient, I don’t think that breeds understanding, exactly. I also think that it’s worth explaining how it works at least briefly to an intelligent person who’s actually honestly asking. I think more people than realize it would enjoy this hobby and acting guilty about it isn’t going to help remove a social stigma.
Also, don’t feel like you’re wasting someone’s time who asked. If you fear you might be, tell them, “It’s sort of complex… about like football. Are you sure you want to know?” I should note: I’m notorious for always giving people the Long Answer, so I ask this kind of question about a lot of topics. Once you’re sure they actually want to know, what do you tell them? Well, first off, if you want, check out the Wikipedia article on it.
Now that you’re back, my definition of a role playing game is this:
There are some number of players and generally one Game Master (Dungeon Master, Referee, etc. terminology varies). The players and Game Master (GM) are telling a story together. Each player makes a character (a Player Character: PC) and they constitute the main characters of the story. In order to offer some tension for events where chance plays a part in the outcome, the group is generally using a set of rules that uses a randomizing tool (various kinds dice are most popular, but I’ve heard of cards, for instance) to help decide if the characters succeed or fail at certain tasks. The important thing, here, is this sentence: The players and GM are telling a story together.
The GM is in charge, basically, of running the simulation, as it were. He (please don’t take offense at my use of pronouns, Lady GMs) manages the world, figures out what the various not-protagonist characters (Non-Player Characters: NPCs) are doing, arbitrates the result of any actions taken by the players the outcome of which is not guaranteed, etc.
The other thing that the GM does is he plots the stories the group tells together. Plotting for an RPG campaign, however, is significantly different from plotting for a book or movie because the players each control one of the main characters. So the GM ends up getting a general idea of where things are headed, what the major goals of various NPCs are and then how the PCs fit into it all. Then the PCs get in there and muck things up in interesting, fun ways. This collaboration in authorship means letting go of a certain non-trivial amount of control as compared to, say, a novel author.
The above three paragraphs don’t feel, to me, to be overly onerous of an explanation. It’s enough detail that you could watch one going on and more or less tell what was happening (in a game sense, I mean. Plot is another matter). I think if you boiled football down to a similar number of words, someone could watch a game and at least follow it loosely.
How do you define role playing? Did I miss a key element? Was I too specific?