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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 2 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