Last week Ben talked about giving the players a larger role in deciding the story arc of their character. This week I’d like to also talk about involving the players more in the creative process while creating the setting.
It’s Your World, They’re Just Living In It
The default mode for GMing is that the players supply the PCs, and the GM does everything else. This means that the GM creates the setting and crafts the story, and then tells the players about the world that surrounds them. This is the default mode for a reason – it works. It does, however, have some limitations. It’s a common occurrence for a player to lack the context that his character should possess. For instance, let’s say that the campaign is set in a small town, and one of the player characters has lived their whole life in that town. They are supposed to know everything about the town – every person, every shortcut, every secret. This is a fundamental part of the character, and a crucial advantage that they are intended to have over the other characters.
The problem is that the person who is playing the character doesn’t actually possess the knowledge that their character is supposed to possess. Since the authoritative source of what is true in this world exists only in the GM’s mind, it is in fact impossible for them to be aware of everything that they should. As a GM, there are three ways to handle this situation. Firstly, you can give that player a cheat sheet of all of the relevant things that their character should know. That way, whenever it seems like some sort of local knowledge might be relevant, the player can look at their sheet and say “Old Man Leary might have a chainsaw we could use.” The biggest problem with this approach is the time required for the player to look up the info. Either they spend a lot of time with their head buried in the paper looking for answers or they just stop looking. This approach also necessitates that the GM has to list all of the possible people and/or things that might be relevant up front. If a situation comes up that they did not anticipate, the player lacks the information to improvise.
Another approach that I have seen work is one where the player is encouraged to improvise and make up the details that they are lacking. I played a character in one of Dann’s campaigns that had an advantage that we just called “I Know a Guy.” Whenever a situation came up where something was required that needed a contact, I would just pipe up with something like “Oh, Jessie on the other side of the road has a pickup truck, maybe we could borrow it.” Of course, I still had to convince Jessie to help me out. I really like this solution, but it requires a good understanding between the player and the GM about the kinds of people or things that they are allowed to make up. It also requires a player that is comfortable making up places, people, and things on the fly.
The third way to handle this is just to have the GM tell the player what their character would know. The players need a place to hide from the cops? “There is an old abandoned coal mine in Red Valley.” I’m not a big fan of this approach, as it’s very hard to do it without railroading the players. When you tell them that they can go hide in the mine, it robs them of the sense of having come up with a solution to the problem on their own. Also, if one player is supposed to have an information edge over the others, just telling him what he should know means that he or she paid extra points for an advantage that benefits the whole party equally. You can slip them a note or pull them aside to give them the info and let them share at their discretion, but it still won’t feel like they earned the victory, and what’s more, the other players will usually be able to tell that they are holding out. There are times, of course, when there’s really no choice but to go this route, to say something like “your character would know that the Duke has an illegitimate son” when the players have forgotten or were never informed.
We Can Work It Out
So if the problem is that the player can’t know the setting as well as the GM because they didn’t create it, what happens if we have the player create the parts that they’re supposed to know? Using our example of the small town local above, the GM and the player playing the local PC could sit down and create the city together. They come up with a history, the landmarks, the important NPCs. They draw a map and talk about what makes it an interesting place. Then when the players need a place to hide, they get to be the one that says “well, we could always hide in the old coal mine in Red Valley.” That moment is full of win, especially if they were the one to come up with the idea of the coal mine in the first place. It gives the player a sense of accomplishment because they thought of the solution, and it makes their character seem valuable because the other PCs didn’t have the knowledge available to them. Even better, there’s a chance that the GM hadn’t considered the old coal mine as a hiding place, providing the player with the ability to feel like they outsmarted the problem.
I’ve used this approach with mixed degrees of success. In the Amunaven campaign, the PCs were members of a family of immortal demigods. Each of the family members had their hobbies and pet city, tribe, nation, or cult. So each player, as part of their character concept, also had to create their pet group of people, and to flesh out the details, including the NPCs. Then I wove the groups that they crafted into the larger story. My hope was to make the players feel as strongly about their creations as the characters would feel about their adopted peoples. Some of the things that they came up with were dynamic and easy to craft a story around, and some were very difficult.
The challenge with this approach is that you are essentially delegating a portion of your GMing responsibilities to the players. Part of delegating is accepting that the product of another’s work might not be the same as if you had done it yourself. If any of the players had come up with an order that simply wouldn’t work (“I want to be the patron god of a grove of sentient trees”), I would have had no problem telling them that they needed to come up with something else. But when their idea is a reasonable one, you are somewhat obliged to accept it. It’s one thing to tell a player that their character concept is okay, but they can come up with something better. It is a known responsibility for players to make their characters, and it’s okay for you, as a GM, to make sure that they make a good one. It’s a very different thing to go them and ask them to take on an additional part of the creative load, a task that would traditionally fall on you, and then shoot down their idea because it’s not great.
I found that this worked best when the player was inherently excited about the idea of creating their part of the setting. Some people, such as myself, have a gene that makes them enjoy world-building, and while they may not want the responsibility of GMing a whole campaign, they would welcome a little bit more creative influence. The other approach that has borne fruit is for the player to focus on something that they know a lot about or are particularly passionate about. For instance, if they are really in to horses, they might be excited about creating an equestrian culture. Even if they fail to make it feel different and new and the final product ends up just scanning as “Fantasy Mongols,” the fact that they are excited about it and immersed in the subject matter will make it feel more real for them, and consequently for the other players as well.
Hey readers! I’m thinking about writing up another character in the Kalastria setting, like I did a couple weeks ago. I enjoyed writing that post, but I’m not sure if people enjoyed reading it. Does anybody have an opinion on the subject?
I’ve been meditating recently on what we mean by “collaborative story telling”. Clearly we’re talking, here, about the way in which the creativity of the GM and the creativity of the players interact at the table, but I wonder if it’s as simple as saying it, or if it’s deeper than that.
Specifically, when I’m building a campaign to be played, I have a rough idea of the plot of the story I want to tell. However, other than reacting to things going on the in the world, I’m not sure what input the players have on the story. What kind of opportunities for authorship do I present them. I have mentioned before the power of player authorship and how it can lead to some rockmost moments, so I don’t think I’m squashing their creativity and ability to express it in the story. However, I think the next time I’m sitting with a player making their PC, I’m going to ask them, “What is the story you want to tell with this character?”
In the past, I’ve tried to guess what the stories a player wanted to tell about their character were, but that seems imprecise and somewhat presumptuous of me. If I ask, I envision them saying things like, “I want it to be the story of him buying off these disadvantages to do with trust and lying,” or, “…of her bringing her father’s killers to justice,” or, “…of spreading his devotion to the Dual God to the heathens in this region.” This would help me look for and build opportunities for those stories to occur in tandem with, if not tightly integrated into, the story of the whole campaign.
Now, just as with a player’s character ideas, I think you have to play referee a bit. If the zealous preaching about the Dual God will be disruptive and unfun because the “heathens” have a strong culture and are zealots themselves, then you have to find a way to guide the player. I think you’re entirely within your rights to tell a player that an idea sounds cool, but that something about the setting makes it less cool. You needn’t explain it to them, just like other aspects of their character. Asking a bunch of questions to find out what about the idea is most appealing to them might lead to other, better ideas.
Finally, I’d be wary of being too married to an idea. It wouldn’t hurt to say this to the player up front; when the wheels hit the road, neither one of you knows where the campaign will ultimately go. If the player wants to call an audible and tell a different story, that’s perfectly fine. The goal is to help figure out what kinds of opportunities they’ll be looking for to let their character grow, not about locking them into a choice they made before they could really know anything about the setting.
As a quick example, I played a character named Tamlin in a fantasy/old west campaign that Stewart ran. Tamlin was very big on fitting in and would pretty much suck up to anyone who he thought was “cool” in an effort to get them to like him and let him hang around. This led to a lot of incidents in his life where people took advantage of him or got him into trouble. I thought his story was going to be about him finding a group of people who wouldn’t take advantage of him and he’d learn to respect himself a bit. Instead, his story turned out being about the terrible things that can happen to you and how doing things people ask you to is always bad. He picked up a mild phobia of being alone and a strong don’t-tell-me-what-to-do streak. The mid-course change wasn’t bad at all, so there’s no reason to try to avoid that kind of thing.
This is one of a series of articles where we’re walk through the process of building what we think of as a good PC. The goal is to reveal the process and help GMs and players when they are making PCs of their own.
For my first endeavor in this series, I thought that I would try building a character in a fantasy setting. I’m using Karthasia, the setting I generated in a previous post. For a quick review, Karthasia is a setting where a sect of death priests (the Xanx) overthrew the existing benevolent theocracy (run by the Albanists) and replaced it. They did so with the aid of the nature-magic wielding Nine Tribes in the woods to the north, who have since become uncontrollable and overrun many cities. There are a few of the Albanists still alive, and they have formed an underground resistance. Lastly, there is an order of scholarly mages, the Order of Arcane Brothers, utilizing the magic of the four classic elements, earth, air, fire, and water who study in secluded towers. They have remained neutral and undisturbed in the conflict thus far.
I created the setting by focusing on the magic, so I think that it would be interesting to build a non-magic-using PC for this exercise. So let’s imagine that we’re working with a player who wants to play somebody who is mostly a fighter, but also kind of stealthy. Also, our imaginary player hates their boss and needs to blow off some steam, so they want to play someone with a rebellious streak and a short temper. What we will usually do at this point is brainstorm and eliminate possibilities until we find two or three that we like. Then we’ll pick the one of the three that seems best, and flesh them out.
Where to start? There are four primary factions (though we’re not limited to them for potential characters), so let’s see if we can devise a combat-oriented option for each one.
For the Xanx, the obvious combat-oriented option is one of the Dark Knights, with their accompanying hellhound. On the plus side, having a pet can be fun, especially when it’s an asset in a fight (and hellhounds are cool). Also, the “evil” shock troop for the empire would have plenty of opportunities to exhibit a short temper. The problem here would be the rebellious streak, seeing as how they would work for the government in power. We could play it where he signed on with the Xanx when they were still a small cult, the underdog as it were, and he directed his vile at the people in charge. Maybe he believed that they were oppressive and controlling and the Xanx would be better, maybe he just doesn’t like authority. Now that he’s working for The Man, he’s chafing a bit and is tired of taking orders.
There are two angles to take on this character – either he’s still working for the Xanx, but is getting sick of being bossed around, or he’s already quit. Both approaches have some advantages. The first option has a built-in character arc, as it’s somewhat obvious that he’ll be looking for some excuse to quit. For the player, this could give them the cathartic experience of telling their in-game bosses to shove it. As a GM, you’d have to give the character some sort of mission that both brought them into contact with the other PCs and gave them a reasonable excuse to quit. The second option also has some cool aspects, especially if the Xanx execute deserters. Maybe he took his armor and his hellhound and quit, but now he’s on the run from the law. From a story perspective, he could hook up with the Albanist underground and (ironically) fight for the new resistance to take down his old masters. If you had enough time, you could do both.
Speaking of the Albanist resistance, what about a former paladin fighting for the underground? It would give them an easy way to exercise the rebellious aspect, railing against the evil empire that oppresses them. The short temper would be slightly more problematic. Perhaps the paladin was once known for his patience and calm, but he snapped when the Albanists fell and now he’s filled with rage? Meh. I’m not really feeling this one.
Staying with the rebellion idea, the PC could be someone who wasn’t affiliated with the Albanists before the fall, but now works with them to assist in the resistance. Maybe they’re just a freedom fighter type who ventures from place to place overthrowing governments. Like the dark knight idea above, they could have worked against the Albanists before switching sides and working for them. This leads in two different directions – an anarchist who hates all governments and just likes making them fall or a mercenary type who specializes in insurrections and finds that there’s more money to be made in politically unstable environments. We could also hybridize these two, and go with a person who appears to be the mercenary type who’s just in it for the money, but is the idealist anarchist at heart. That seems pretty cool. Not sure how well it meshes with the rebellious nature and short temper. Maybe the PC has a “you might be paying for my services, but we do this my way or we don’t do it at all” kind of vibe. This also seems like a character that is slightly more cerebral and strategy oriented than the fighter we were originally envisioning.
What about the other two factions? The Order of Arcane Brothers probably hire on extra muscle to guard their keeps and fetch supplies. This doesn’t really seem to gel with the rebelliousness though. I could imagine a character who hates and resents his wizard bosses, but the money is too good to quit – it just seems both off-point and lacking in win.
If we go to the Nine Tribes, it’s not hard to envision a savage warrior, fighting with bow, axe, and spear. It’s also not difficult to see how a character like that might be both rebellious and quick-tempered. The trick would be figuring out how to make them interesting, and how to tie them into a story with characters that were not from the tribes. The easiest way to make them interact with others is to make them an outcast from their people. Perhaps they sassed one of the elders when they shouldn’t have, or broke some tribal taboo. The default in that case might be to just have them roaming around as a mercenary, forced into a fish out of water role in the southern cities. Another way to go would be to have some sort of quest laid out for them by one of the shamans (perhaps the one they slighted) that they must fulfill before they can be allowed to rejoin the tribe. This quest could the central quest to the story (restore the Albanists to power, retrieve the holy chalice from the sacred temple, assassinate the High Priest of Xanx), or it could interact with the story in some more subtle way such that the PC has their own reasons for helping the PCs. For instance, the other PCs might be on a quest to topple the Xanx and restore the Albanists, while this character is only using their cause to gain access to the central sanctum and steal some precious artifact.
Lastly, we could consider a character unaffiliated with any of the factions. Perhaps a criminal or a small-time gang leader in one of the southern cities who once dodged the paladins of the Albanists, and now evades the dark knights of the Xanx. “They all look like cops to me.” Of the ideas thus far, this is the easiest one to envision as being totally acrimonious to authority figures. On top of that, playing a totally amoral, selfish character is fun from time to time. The problem is figuring out how you could work him into a story. A character like this one would need some serious loyalties (mom, little sister) or obligations (gambling debt to bigger crime boss) to motivate him. Or perhaps the Xanx, with their secret informers and hellhounds, are more effective cops than their predecessors, and that’s bad for business. With the right kind of player, that could be sufficient motivation.
Choosing a Character
I think that we have three potentials: the dark knight who decides to quit, the outcast tribesman on a quest for redemption, and the gang leader who doesn’t care about anything but his own well-being. The next step is to look a little more closely at each of these options, think about what the final character would look like, and then decide which one we like best. It’s worth pointing out that when I’m spec-ing out the characters, I’m assuming a point-based character system that incorporates advantages and disadvantages of some flavor. I’ll use the GURPS names here, but the basic ideas could be ported to any system (even ones that don’t give points for taking disadvantages).
So what does our ex-Dark Knight look like? Tall, menacing, with dark hair and a perpetual two-day beard. Hard eyes that look like he can do bad things and then forget about them. His back-story lends him a few obvious disadvantages. In addition to the Enemy who is hunting him (the Xanx government), he’d probably want one or two more “bad man” disadvantages, maybe Bully, or Bloodlust. His status as an ex-cop would make for interesting relationships with criminals. It would be hard to convince people that he actually quit and wasn’t an undercover cop. And if people believed that he was actually a deserter, they could always turn him in for a reward. In fact, the character might have to take on a new identity entirely so that people didn’t sell him out (giving him a Secret instead of an Enemy). He would probably have some reasonable social skills (Fast-Talk, Intimidation) and some interesting law enforcement-specific skills like Interrogation, Forced Entry, Search, and perhaps Tactics. He’d have the standard combat skills for the setting (sword and shield), and high Strength. He would have some high quality equipment from his Dark Knight days, as well as a hellhound, though he’d need to find ways to disguise them. His primary way of solving problems would probably be to punch/hack his way out of trouble, with a backup plan of bullying/bluffing people he couldn’t kill. Plotwise, he has obvious ties to any story that involves the Xanx, and he couldn’t afford to be picky about what jobs he took to make money.
My mental picture of the exiled tribesman looks like a cross between Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans and Conan the Barbarian, with long blondish-red hair in braids. He wears leather clothes that he made himself, and has a combat style that relies heavily on athleticism and range. He’s armed with a bow, a spear, and a hand axe for when close combat is required. Fierce, agile, clever. I don’t know yet what the story of this ficticious campaign would be, but it would probably involve the Albanist resistance and the Xanx government in some way, which suggests that it would mostly be set in the cities of the south. This creates some very obvious disadvantages for a member of the Nine Tribes, who’s people have slaughtered and pillaged the cities in the north. For starters, he would have an obvious Social Stigma as a savage, and a Conspicuous Feature that made it hard for him to blend in. His level of technology might actually be considered primitive by local standards. I think it would be cool if the Nine Tribesmen were unable/unwilling to use metal weapons. Perhaps some sort of religious belief or a learned fear of soldiers from the cities. He would almost definitely be illiterate, and would probably speak the local tongue with a strong accent. On the plus side, being the stranger in a strange land can have a lot of advantages. If the local soldiers are used to fighting straightforward battles in heavy armor, an agile warrior who can maintain distance with a spear, ambush them with a bow, or sneak up behind them with an axe could be very effective. Additionally, he would have skills that other characters in the setting are unlikely to possess, like Tracking, Poisons, Herbalism, and Wrestling.
There would be two really significant challenges for any player playing this character. Firstly, the fish out of water problem. It can be fun to play the outsider, but somewhere around the twentieth time that the player hears “and what do you know, savage?” it starts to get old. As a GM, it’s important for you to think ahead to these sorts of situations and make sure that the player is aware that it will come up. Secondly, this isn’t a character with particularly robust social skills, at least not in an urban setting. The savage from the north woods should be able to intimidate some people, but the player would have to be careful that fighting and bullying weren’t their only options. To this end, it’s probably very important that their stealth skills be as good as their combat skills. For an example, imagine that the character needs to talk to a local mob leader to arrange some sort of deal. The mob boss works in a tavern, and has goons/bouncers at the doors to keep out unsavory customers. The character could try to bluster and threaten his way in, but that’s not likely to work. He could try to fight his way in, but he’s definitely outnumbered and it probably wouldn’t leave the best impression on the mob boss. So he climbs up on the roof, finds a loose window, and walks up to the boss without anybody seeing him. It’s really crucial for PCs to have skills that provide them with a backup plan; for most PCs the tools are either talking or fighting, but there are other alternatives.
Tying the tribesman into the story is easy to do, but hard to do well. We could always just have his quest for acceptance be central to the story that we intend for the PCs to engage in. Ideally, though, it would only be tangentially related to the larger story, giving him some minor but important moments of conflicts with the other PCs.
Lastly, we have our gang leader. I’m envisioning someone who’s scruffy but charismatic. Sandy blonde, longish hair, and Gary Oldman “I will cut you” crazy eyes. His primary skills are probably going to be combat related. Brawling, Knife, Shortsword. He’s also going to have some pretty decent social skills. Streetwise, Fast-Talk, Acting, Detect Lies, Intimidation, and so on. He would know his way around the city, and could operate freely. This is the most versatile of the options so far, which is in keeping with the self-reliance angle. The problem is that he’s not all that interesting. Antiheroes aren’t as novel as they used to be, and while this would make a fine character for an inexperienced role-player, there’s not much for a seasoned player to sink their teeth into.
With that in mind, I feel like it comes down to the Dark Knight and the Tribesman. I let Ben choose, and he said the tribesman, henceforth known as N’Kava Tharak.
Fleshing Out the Character
We have a basic backstory established. N’Kava broke some sort of taboo, and was exiled from the Nine Tribes as punishment. One of the shamans/tribe leaders gave him a quest that he could complete to be re-admitted. So the first question is: what did he do to get banished? This leads us to the zeroth question, what kind of person is he? Was his crime a noble or ignoble one? We’ve already established that he has a Bad Temper and a problem with authority figures, though one or both of those things could be a product of his banishment rather than the reason for it. If we wanted to go with the noble failing angle, we could say that he was ordered to slaughter a family in battle by his incompetent and bloodthirsty commander, and he refused the order. This sets him up as kind of a softie, but a likable one. On the other side of the spectrum, he could have killed his commander because he was sick of his attitude, or wanted his job. This sets a very different tone for the character going forward.
I think that a character like this one is most fun when he seems dangerous and unpredictable, but not flat out psychotic. So let’s shoot for a middle ground. GURPS has a poorly-named disadvantage called Bloodlust that basically means “I don’t show mercy, and I don’t take prisoners.” It doesn’t mean that you’re looking for a fight, but when you do fight you do it for keeps. That, coupled with Stubbornness and our previously established Bat Temper and Intolerance towards authority figures, makes for a character with some meaty issues to play with (and probable run-ins with the law). Now we come up with a backstory that accounts for his banishment and takes these things into account.
If the take-no-prisoners attitude is the ultimate reason for him being banished, then we could come up with a situation where showing mercy is the only acceptable response. We could flip the scenario from above, and say that he was ordered to take a helpless family captive and slaughtered them – but that’s a little meaner than I was shooting for. What if he was fighting someone in a ritualized combat, like a duel, and killed them when he wasn’t supposed to? That seems like a crime that would merit being kicked out (instead of executed), with the opportunity to redeem oneself. So now why was he dueling to begin with? He was on a war party and disagreed with the party leader’s orders in front of the other men. After the excursion was over, the war party leader challenges him to a duel. The duel is supposed to be until one party calls for mercy, but N’Kava killed him even after he was down and pleading.
That’s a sufficient story, but it lacks personal characters. Let’s give N’Kava a family, and involve them in the incident. N’Kava was orphaned at a young age, and he and his sister (Thala) were adopted by his uncle (Krin’Thlor), the shaman/leader of their tribe. Krin’Thlor was a good leader and a fair man, but not a loving parent. When N’Kava’s sister was of age, Krin’Thlor arranged a marriage to one of the war leaders of the tribe, a wealthy and proud man named Granak. Granak was significantly older than Thala, and N’Kava disapproved of their marriage. In a skirmish with one of the other tribes, Granak ordered his party to attack a seemingly undefended village. N’Kava thought it was a trap, and said so. Loudly and insistently. The party attacked, and were ambushed. They still won the battle due to superior numbers, but took heavy losses. After the party returned to the village, Granak challenged N’Kava to a duel. N’Kava chose bare hands for the weapons. During the fight, N’Kava kicked Granak in the leg and crippled him. Granak called for mercy, but N’Kava continued to beat him until he is dead, thus widowing his own sister and forcing his uncle to banish him. He may only return if he completes a quest of redemption.
So what should the quest be? Quests can be a bit tricky. In my experience, your players will come up with solutions to problems that you did not anticipate. If the problem that you present them with is a straightforward one (kill this guy, steal this artifact) they tend to come up with solutions that can short circuit your campaign. For example, let’s say that the quest that we laid out for our tribesman was to retrieve a specific artifact from the vaults of the central compound of the Xanx. Our intent, as a GM, is to encourage the player to join the resistance, as a means to penetrating the heavily-guarded palace. Our player, however, might just decide to go to a rich nobleman’s house, kill him, and steal all of his money. Then he finds one of the temple guardsmen and bribes the hell out of him. What do you do as a GM in that situation? If you let it work, the character has no reason to continue in the campaign. If you don’t let it work, you have to have a damn good reason or you’re just railroading the players.
I think that it’s better to give PCs quests that require them to gather more information before they can enact a plan. You can accomplish this through unclear objectives (“obtain the jewel that reveals the hearts of men”) or just giving them something huge and complicated (“bring peace to the realm”). If the story that we are intending the players to experience is one of restoring the Albanist government to power, or at least overthrowing the Xanx, then we want to give a quest that leads N’Kava in that direction. Perhaps the quest could be “return as the lawfully appointed ruler of the northern lands.” The Xanx are set on conquering and have already promised the northern cities to their own generals and lords, so his only way to accomplish this is to overthrow them and make sure that the new government names him ruler of the north. This gives him a reason to involve himself with the central story, and it creates some small conflicts of interest, seeing as how he doesn’t really care who the new government is as long as they recognize his claim.
N’Kava Tharak is a fierce warrior from the Nine Tribes of the north. He has been banished from his people for committing a serious crime, of which he will not speak. He is a fierce warrior, fighting with the traditional weapons of spear, axe, and bow. In spite of his banishment, he believes in the ways of his people and is disdainful of cities and their customs. N’Kava has a quick temper, and has problems taking orders from others. He doesn’t walk around looking for fights, but he won’t back down from one if it’s offered, and won’t stop fighting until his foes are dead. Though he is reluctant to speak of his past, those who know him are aware that he must complete a great and dangerous quest before he will be allowed to rejoin The Nine Tribes.
To wrap up a very long post, the one thing that I’d like to point out about this process is how critical the initial guidance from the player is in creating a character. I think that people tend to dive straight to the stage of brainstorming cool ideas when creating characters. The most satisfying characters to play are the ones that really resonate for the player, and since the goal is to make the game as fun for the players as possible, it’s important to start with the emotional center of the character and work out from there.
It’s pretty common advice for new writers that they should read a lot. Similarly, reading good code makes you a better programmer and watching a great dancer will help make you a better dancer. In the spirit of those sorts of activities (practice through observation), this running series of posts will take a popular story from page or screen and see what can be learned about roleplaying games from it. Primarily we’ll look at the setting of the story as a campaign setting and the characters in the story as PCs and NPCs. We’re not evaluating or judging the “goodness” of these things, just looking at how well they would translate to the medium of RPGs.
[Spoiler Warning: I use some plot points from the movie to illustrate some ideas. If you haven’t seen this one, you should really go do that.]
Your players recently rewatched The Matrix and have been lobbying you to put together a Matix campaign. What, given the movie, are the cool bits you should pick out?
I know kung fu!
Well, one obvious place to start is the high-action wire fu aspect. This plays right into the common power fantasy meme that most players harbor. The first thing you do is you pull out all the cinematic optional combat rules for your system. Knock-back for punches? Yes. Tic-tacing off foes during a fight? Yes. Running on walls to flip and kick a dude in the face? Yes! Understand that your PCs are going to be very high powered. They should have enough skill with their martial art of choice to accept hefty penalties for doing something insane and still have a decent chance of succeeding.
Speaking of insane things, these crazy kung fu tricks are enabled by the character’s ability to deny the false reality around them. How you model this will have, I think, a great impact on how your game plays. It would not be unfaithful to the source material, I think, if you simply had a single skill called Matrix Manipulation which you rolled against to, well, manipulate the Matrix. However, there’s no reason not to just dump points into this skill. Then every character is essentially the same. I think a more balanced, variety-encouraging solution would be to divide the various ways the Matrix can be manipulated into different skills. So one guy might be really good at making himself stronger and another might be good at making himself faster. You could get as granular as you want with it (does making yourself stronger increase your jumping distance, or is that a separate skill?) and still retain balance, I think.
There are a few more things you could do, I think, in order to mechanically facilitate the wire fu stuff. Get familiar with your system’s rules for health of and damage with random inanimate objects based on weight. How else will your PCs be able to Jackie Chan some guy’s legs out from under him with an ottoman or use a stop sign as a weapon? Also, if your system has rules that cover crazy gun fu, all the better. If you do all that, those combats are going to be complex, but epic. It looks like this is territory best covered by groups who are all very familiar with their rule system.
One thing to consider, here, is that the ridiculous lethality of Agents offsets the ridiculous power of the PCs. How you model them could vary, but a good start would be to take what seems like a reasonable “average” amped up stat from your PCs and multiply it by 1.5 or 2. They’ll be twice as fast, twice as strong, etc. as average, but not quite that much better than your specialists in their forte. You might have to play-test some combats with those stats to see how they go. You want your PCs to be able to get away, but you also want them to want to run, rather than try to fight. Another way I could see modeling Agents would be to bust out rules concerning people who can see the future for purposes of dodging only, give them ridiculous strength and very high weapons skills, but don’t give them so much speed that no PC can run away for more than a turn of combat before being caught. Basically, the second approach would take more time and tinkering, but specifically targeting each ability might offer better balance.
Welcome to the desert of the real.
One cannot deny that the picture of the real world that The Matrix presents is evocative: the hover-ships making covert connections to the Matrix with monotonous meals and submarine-like interiors, the blackened sky over a frozen wasteland of destroyed buildings and highways, towers of people in pods tended by insectoid robots with creepy claws and syringes at the end of each appendage.
That’s all great and flavorful, but I think you actually want to downplay this aspect of your campaign. You certainly don’t want to spend more time out of the Matrix than in it, I think, if the action of The Matrix is what spurred this idea to begin with. I think the PCs’ ship should be a relatively safe place, if a bit boring. I’d use threats to the ship to mix things up, not as a regular feature. Have them need to leave it to scavenge a part for repairs or get in an exciting chase once, but I think those are best used to emphasize that the danger is very close to home than as normal level threats. You can also use it to highlight how powerful the PCs are inside the Matrix. They can’t jump several stories or use kung fu or any of their awesome stuff. Mostly, they’ll run from scary stuff or suffer terribly.
And she knows what? Everything?
The Oracle features pretty predominantly in The Matrix. I suppose you could leave her out if you wanted, but the way the characters act about her, it seems like most everyone goes to see her. But because this is roleplaying and not a movie or a book, how are you supposed to write dialog for an NPC that can see the future? This is a real quandry and we could probably brainstorm several possible solutions, but I think you have two basic tactics you could use: Be vague or be spoilerey.
The vague thing is pretty easy to do (sham psychics use it all the time). You can say ominous things like, “You will witness a great threat to human kind,” or, “You will experience a great change in your life.” The downside is that you have to work pretty hard to make sure it doesn’t just sound like a well translated fortune cookie and evoke a sarcastic “Oooooo” from your players. The spoilerey one is less easy and can lead you close to railroading (which is a third option I don’t think we should discuss). If you were using the plot of the movie for your campaign, you could allude to Cypher’s betrayal with something like, “You will be betrayed by someone very close to you.”
I think the best bet would probably be a fusion of the two: Give the player in question a little bit of a spoiler about what’s coming up, but keep it vague enough that it might be able to come true in several ways. Note the above. If she said, “Cypher will betray you,” then they just shiv Cypher and call it done, right? But then the prophecy didn’t come true. So there’s some consistency protection that’s going on, there. There doesn’t seem to be discussion in the movie about changing something the Oracle has foretold; she’s saying things that will come true, not that might come true. Another thing about this, though, is that if you pay attention, you’ll notice that the Oracle lies. She may know the future for certain, but she doesn’t always say it, or say it in a way that’s obvious or say all of it.
All I see now is blonde, brunette, redhead.
If you examine the characters in the movie, I think it’s pretty clear who the PCs are. Trinity is the clearest cut. Morpheus wouldn’t make a terrible PC, except he’s got a bit of the Wise Old Wizard thing going, which doesn’t play that well in a PC. Neo, especially end-of-the-movie Neo, is sort of a travesty. If you had a game with three players and ran the plot of the movie, you’d obviously be side-lining the other two players. I’d rather talk about potential kinds of players in a game not modeled exactly after the plot of the movie.
First off, I think you don’t let anyone play the Operator. They’re great NPCs, but they don’t get to do all the awesome actioney stuff, so they’re poor PCs. I think it would pay to work up some mechanic (maybe just a few specialty skills to roll against) for their ability to help the crew members that are in the Matrix at the time so that they don’t just become fonts of GM knowledge and can mess up on occasion. It also lets you use them to deliver witty, endearing dialog about how awesome the PCs looked just now doing whatever they were doing.
So if all of your PCs are going to be the crew folk that go into the Matrix, you run the risk of them all feeling very similar. To a certain extent, I think you just have to live with a certain amount of similarity. How different can three black-leather-and-spandex clad super-human martial artists in wrap-around shades really be? One mitigator, which I mentioned above, is to break up the Matrix manipulation abilities into distinct mechanical entities (each is a skill or whatever) so that players have to balance what they invest in. From an in-game perspective, this might be rationalized that, for instance, one guy has an easier time believing that he could out run a car than lift it, which, if he’s always been scrawny, is not so hard to imagine. Beyond that, I think you encourage the players to have specialties like you might if you were running a Special Forces campaign. Someone likes super high range weapons, someone’s the pistol fu expert, another guy loves him some melee weapons, explosives, breaking-and-entering, etc.
Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.
So what kinds of stories can you tell in the universe of The Matrix? This one is somewhat hard mostly because Neo exists in the canon. The story of the movie is so very clearly the story of how Neo saves everything forever. If you want to aspire to any kind of similarly epic scope, it’s hard to avoid running into Neo in one way or another and then looking small time compared to him (because by definition you sort of have to). One way to dodge that bullet (you see what I did there? I’m very funny, I know) is to make the campaign purposefully smaller scale. Some kind of internally-based political in-fighting is going on in Zion and the PCs have to run around and kick guys in the face to get a thing so their candidate (or whatever) can win.
The other would be to figure out a way to have the PCs touch the Neo plot line without getting so involved that their awesome powers look paltry next to Neo’s. One suggestion, and I have to give credit to Stewart for this one, would be that the crew is part of the faction of Zionites that agree with Morpheus’s beliefs about The One. They could go the entire campaign working towards finding something that the Machines seem to be very excited about and are spending a lot of energy to secretly investigate. The finale is the discovery that the hidden thing is some guy no one’s ever heard of named Thomas Anderson. That’s a pretty cool reveal and since it predates the movie, there’s no chance of being shown up by Neo’s crazy powers.
The first idea that popped into my head was to take the idea presented in the later movies by the Architect that the Matrix has had several iterations, each with a One that is crazy powerful and set the campaign in an entirely different (and earlier) iteration. Then, the players won’t know anything about the One and you could have one of them end up filling that role if you wanted. The danger, there, is that that player gets the spot light a lot of the time and gets all the cool powers, so I like Stewart’s idea better.