Author Archive

Vast, Opaque Conspiracies; Small, Important PCs

January 27, 2011 1 comment

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

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

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

The Second Assassination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Campaign Post-Mortems

Penny Arcade is Wrong

December 15, 2010 1 comment

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

GMing is Not Playing

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

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

Designed to Take New Players to Level 7

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

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

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

The Solution is to Take a Break

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

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

The Details Just Aren’t There

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

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

The Inevitable Caveat

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

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

Categories: The Way

Failing to Entice Your Players

December 8, 2010 2 comments

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

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

The Most Decisive PC

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

Fragile Plans

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

Self Preservation Instinct

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

What Should Have Been

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failing to Understand Your PCs

November 23, 2010 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Takeaway

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

Conning Your Players

November 2, 2010 2 comments

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

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

Some Examples

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

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

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

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

Categories: Mastering the Game

Scene Construction

October 19, 2010 Leave a comment

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

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

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

The First Idea

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

The Cliche

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

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

The Actual Idea

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

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

Categories: Mastering the Game

RPG Adaptation: Harry Potter

October 5, 2010 2 comments

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.

The Setting

Geographically speaking, the setting of Harry Potter is basically ideal for a campaign. The main location, Hogwarts, is a giant castle with centuries of history and secrets accrued over time. The main characters don’t have full reign of it, so some parts are off-limits and some are not, leaving plenty of room for hijinks. There is both a center of safety and home (their House common room and dorms) and a center of adversary (the opposing House’s common room) in close proximity and plenty of space for that rivalry to play out in neutral territory. Also, you could make a really killer map of the castle for the players to pore over.

There are a handful of secondary locations shown off at various times which can help break things up in case people are feeling stuck in the giant castle. They can go down to Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley. The stories generally start at Harry’s relatives’ house and/or the Weasley’s house. I suppose you could argue that the forest surrounding Hogwarts–home to centaurs, giant spiders and unicorns–is another secondary location apart from the school proper. This emphasis on one central location means that players could really get a sense of the place and feel like they know their way around. The fact that a handful of other locations are readily available means that they can still be made to go somewhere that’s not home turf once in a while.

In a less literal sense, the setting of Harry Potter has much to offer. The main thing, of course, is magic. Players, from the get-go, are allowed to play around with a special power that doesn’t exist in real life. Since the main characters are students at Hogwarts, they are watched over by a cadre of professors who are interested enough to keep anyone from killing each other, but distracted and/or trusting enough to let the protagonists get into entertaining trouble. Since everyone’s a magician, you might have trouble differentiating one character’s skill set from another (more on that later) and some players might feel stifled under the constant watch of the drastically more powerful administration.

The Characters

I think it’s pretty clear there are three PCs in the Harry Potter stories. Harry obviously gets some top billing but not so much that I think it ruins everything. As the leader in crime (for the most part), Harry’s character is focused more towards cunning and non-magical skills, but he’s got a few powerful spells he can rely on in a pinch. He’s got solid balance for a PC and, really, the only down side is that he’s so central to the over-arching plot.

Hermione is more focused on magic than Harry, clearly. She knows more spells than he does and, in general, is better at them. It’s possible she knows more spells and better than anyone in her age group at Hogwarts. Basically, she’s a huge book worm and her greatest asset is her knowledge. When asking how Hermoine solves problems (without being specific about the problem), the answer is almost always magic first or else some other kind of book learning. She also has some interesting character traits that can be both an asset and a detriment (like her compulsive need to get good grades).

Ron is a bit of a problem. He’s pretty much balanced like Harry, but worse at everything. He’s the weakest candidate for PCdom of the three, but he’s always around so mere page count tends to counter-act that. It’s almost as if Ron were built by a very inexperienced GM and player together and ended up not using his points (or whatever character creation currency you use) efficiently compared to Harry’s player. One thing Ron brings to the table is his having lived in the magical world his entire life. It’s almost never used to good effect in the stories, but this could potentially let him know things the other players don’t and get to tell them about stuff now and again.

The NPCs are obvious: Dumbledore is, like Gandalf, there to act as a plot device for the most part and reveal Things to the players. Draco Malfoy is a wonderful non-lethal foil for the PCs and comes with Slytherin goons for when someone needs beating up (or whatever the verb is for magically abusing someone). The teachers range in their level of sympathy and depth from Snape and Hagrid to, uh… whoever it is that is head of House Hufflepuff and, you know, the teacher that’s a ghost. In general, the student body is large enough to hide important NPCs in until they become important (like Luna Lovegood or Cho Chang).

The Story

I’m not sure if we should consider one book or the whole series when talking about stories. Aside from the fact that people do less time for manslaughter than it would take to run the whole campaign, the structure of the entire series is nice in that there is a sequence of smaller story arcs that create and work within a much larger arc. Realistically, I can’t see a group of players being able to maintain the time commitment long enough to get through all seven years of campaign time. Luckily, any given single book is pretty self contained and could be a campaign to its self.

The formula is pretty close the typical Dann Campaign formula: The PCs start a semester and go to a few classes. Before too long it becomes clear that Something Odd is going on and they set about figuring out what that thing is, who’s behind if and thwarting it. In the course of things, they generally have plenty of sneaking about to do, learn some new spells, get side-tracked on some interesting red herrings and have a few opportunities to use their magic in cool ways. The one thing I’d be worried about would be the relatively low level of directly adversarial magic in most of the stories. A lot of players will really want to be slinging around those petrificus totaluses.

Alternatively, if you were going to run a Hogwarts campaign without Harry and the gang, that would be doable a few generations before or after them. Unlike The Matrix or Star Wars, by the end of the books Harry hasn’t drastically changed the setting as it is first introduced. In fact, he’s mostly protected a status quo. So if your players all played characters that were too young to really remember Voldemort at all, they could still go to Diagon Alley to buy wands and meet Nearly Headless Nick and narrowly avoid getting in trouble for being out of bed after hours by clever use of the Marauder’s Map.

One of my biggest concerns about this setting is that the PCs would all be kids. It seems like a real challenge for an adult (or someone in their late teens) to play a 12- or 14-year-old. Part of the stories rely on the scope of events and violence being scaled to kids and on the characters making childish, naive or immature decisions. So first off, you have to decide that your players will be able to do that well and then you have to decide that they’ll have fun doing it. Especially as the main characters start to get involved in romance plots, they routinely behave irrationally and immaturely. As well, magic is powerful and somewhat of a responsibility for which most kids aren’t going to be prepared, really. Is that something your players will have fun exploring, or will it get tiring quickly?

Categories: RPG Adaptation