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.
Most tabletop RPG campaigns are action adventures of some form, which is to say that they involve characters that go places and do stuff, and fighting tends to happen along the way. This puts them in the fine tradition of action movies and most video games, and as such, they tend to have the same conventions. Most of those conventions (eg. beating up goons with increasing levels of skill, picking up better weapons and allies along the way, etc) adapt to RPGs very naturally. Today, we’re going to look at my favorite of those conventions: The Miniboss.
A Miniboss is defined by being:
- A bad guy
- Less powerful than the final bad guy
- More powerful than some random goon
- Distinct and memorable
There are basically two types of Miniboss: the Lieutenant and the Nemesis.
The Big Bad, Just Smaller
The Lieutenant is a powerful antagonist, one that requires the combined efforts of all of the PCs to defeat. If we go back to the foundations of the modern fantasy tradition*, the works of the venerable J.R.R. Tolkien, we find the seminal Miniboss, Saruman. He has his own army of Uruk-Hai to fight the heroes, he is more powerful than any one of them on their own, and the protagonists are forced to defeat him before they can move on to facing Sauron more directly.
The mere existence of Lieutentants gives a story structure. They are defined by being powerful and crucial to the story, so it is easy to create story elements that deal with defeating them. If your miniboss is an undead horror ruling over an army at the gates to the malevolent kingdom to the north, then your heroes first task might be to raid an ancient tomb where a weapon capable of defeating him is said to be buried. Then they have to circumvent his army by passing through the Black Wood – but not before assisting in the defense of that one key castle from the evil armies. Then, finally, they can sneak into his keep and do battle with him directly. Only then can they turn their attention to the real threat. Voila! Instant Plot!
Additionally, Lieutenants make for fun and epic battles without endless combat. There are basically two ways to create epic battles – either your heroes battle their way through a tremendous number of lower-level baddies (think House of Blue Leaves from Kill Bill volume 1) or they have a fight with someone way better than them. On the screen, these battles are fairly comparable in time and effort. Scenes where the protagonists dispatches lots of goons with ease look awesome, as it gives them a chance to be totally badass. In RPGs, fighting your way through dozens of lower-level baddies means hundreds of die rolls, and instead of feeling awesome, it just means monotonous and anticlimactic die rolls to kill yet another baddie.
There is an interesting variation on the Lieutenant that you see from time to time where they are presented as though they are the Big Bad, but it turns out there is something Bigger and Badder waiting behind them to be defeated. This is a particularly common trope in video games (good job Mario, but the princess is in another castle), mostly because there is no sense of how long a game is supposed to take, so the player/audience can’t look at their watch and figure out if the end is approaching soon. In films and books, you see this device more commonly in multi-part stories. The Lieutenant is defeated at the end of the first installment, and then the real villain gets introduced. Since I’ve already referenced Tolkien, let’s look at the foundation for Sci-Fi RPGS, Star Wars. In A New Hope, Darth Vader is clearly presented as the Big Bad. It isn’t until The Empire Strikes Back that we see the real villain of the story — the Emperor that is giving Vader his orders.
The challenge with Lieutenants is keeping them alive long enough for them to be important. If Lord of the Rings were a role-playing campaign, when the players were faced with the choice of fighting through the snowy pass or going through Moria they would instead have decided to just sneak into Isengard and kill Saruman in his sleep. This is why Lieutenants usually have armies of goons standing between them and the players – they provide more opportunities for the players to fail Stealth rolls. On the other hand, this can also be a strength; if your players are particularly effective at short-circuiting campaigns by circumventing obstacles, Lieutenants become magnets for their ingenuity, giving them meaty problems to solve before they can turn their focus to ruining your plan for how the final boss fight is supposed to go.
Like You, Just Eviller
The other type of miniboss is the Nemesis – a character roughly on the same power level as the PCs who serves as a foil for them. A good Nemesis has two characteristics: they show up more than once, and the players hate them. Unlike the Lieutenant, the Nemesis usually survives deep into the story, only to be defeated in the final act right before the Big Bad.
I know that this is somewhat less nerdy than my usual fare, but a terrific example of the Nemesis is the “creepy thin man” (masterfully played by Crispin Glover**) from the first Charlie’s Angels movie. He’s distinctive and memorable, so the audience/players notice and remember him. He’s a match for any of the protagonists one-on-one, setting him apart from the usual goons to be dispatched. Because of his skill, he manages to elude them on several occasions, and the protagonists really despise him.
I really, really like using Nemesis Minibosses in role-playing campaigns. Powerful adversaries are a good thing, and I’ve found that players really like to have somebody that they can hate. Lieutenants and Big Bads, by their very nature, tend to be powerful and remote, which makes it difficult for them to inspire disdain. I mean, they can slaughter families and make their goons commit atrocities and the like, but it’s not the same as if you see them up close. There is a very visceral feeling associated with finally defeating that annoying bastard that’s been bugging you and kept getting away.
The trick with Nemeses, like the Lieutenants, is keeping them alive. In order for the Nemesis to be effective, you have to throw them at the PCs early and often, and they have to have ways to escape without the PCs feeling like they are being railroaded. It’s advisable to give them some skills that make them naturally durable or able to escape at will – or both.
The Dark Image
The most common type of Nemesis is one that is a foil for a specific character in a story. If Magneto is the Big Bad for an X-Men story, Mystique might act as a Nemesis for the entire team – she is formidable, but not so powerful as to take on the whole team at once (conveniently, she also has a power that gives her the means to escape). Sabretooth, on the other hand, is a Nemesis purely for Wolverine. The Dark Image Nemesis has very similar skills and attributes to one of the PCs, and should be used to make that PCs life particularly difficult. The fact that they are so similar to the PC somehow serves to make them that much more annoying for the player, and that much more fun to defeat at the end.
*Interestingly, Tolkien based his work on Danish and Norse mythology – where Grendel is another terrific example of a Lieutenant Miniboss. The heroes are brought into the story initially just to dispatch him, and the first third of the Beowulf is devoted to his defeat. Of course, it turns out that Beowulf is the smaller threat, and that the real Big Bad is his mother. And then there’s this story about a dragon that’s kind of tacked on at the end to make it a trilogy.
**I saw Crispin Glover once. I was standing in line for a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse and he was there to present one of his indie projects. He is In-Tense. And short. I mean really, really short. It kind of threw me off. The total effect was this little dude that looked like he could start a fire with his eyes and flip out and cut people ninja-style at any moment. Just thought I’d share.
Much like any other creative endeavor, there are a lot of things that you have to get right to make a good campaign. You need good players who are both reliable and engaged. Those players need to be playing characters that they find challenging and fun. You need a setting and a story that gives those characters something cool to do. And as a GM, you have to be prepared and on your game. You have to keep the action moving, keep all of the NPCs and details straight, and set the tone.
If you do all of those things, you’re going to have a good and enjoyable campaign. But even if you accomplish all of them, is doesn’t guarantee you a great campaign. You know that it was a great campaign when people are reminiscing years later about their characters and those awesome things that they did. Part of that is that the GM did a good job of maximizing rockmost – they made decisions and created situations that enabled fun things to happen. But there’s more to it then that. A really great campaign has a heart. The heart of the campaign is the overriding theme, the thing that gives it continuity and makes it feel like more than just a series of events.
Examples of Success
In Ver Jattick, one of the campaigns that Dann ran, the heart of the story was its history. The setting was one that he had played in years before with his friends. For our campaign, he moved the setting forward a few hundred years, so that the actions of his old players were now history and legend. When he described the city, it sounded like an old local giving directions: “Well you go up to Old Barney’s place, and turn right. Then you turn left where that barn used to be before it burned down.”
By itself, that history would have been a cool feature, and would have made the setting more interesting. But the thing that made it better, that took that history and made it the heart of the campaign, is that it pervaded everything. The characters all had dark pasts that tied them somehow to the larger story. The larger story involved uncovering atrocities that happened thousands of years ago. Some of the characters that were PCs in the old campaigns were still alive, though transformed by the years. The history of the place was inescapable. Consequently, when the story reached its epic conclusion, we felt as though the things that we were doing mattered. We felt like we were writing a new chapter in the history of Ver Jattick, and that our actions would determine the fate of generations to come.
In Kjemmen, the campaign that Ben is currently bringing to completion, the heart of the campaign is the feeling of deceit and immorality that pervades the setting. It’s a city built around the corpse of a fallen god of death, run by dark priests and warring nobility that more closely resemble mob bosses than refined lords and ladies. Every person in Kjemmen has a vice; no one is pure, everyone can be bought and no one can be trusted. There are no good guys, just some people that are less bad than others.
Ben did a terrific job of making this feel real for the players. He gave the NPCs believable vices, and let them be revealed without being too obvious about it. The players were betrayed on all sides, and learned the hard way that no one could be trusted. In time, they internalized this feeling, betraying and distrusting one another. In most cases, having a pervasive aura of evil and distrust between the players would be a bad thing, but in this case it was a terrific success.
The heart of the story doesn’t have to be an abstract idea. I ran a fantasy campaign a few years ago in a setting called Bakad. The original seed for the campaign was that I wanted to try a world with unusual fantasy races and no humans. The whole story took place in and around a single city, and that city was ruled by an undying vampire named Toruf-Tar. I always felt like that campaign was kind of a failure. I had two threads in mind for the story, and I totally screwed one of them up and ended up dropping it. The final battle at the end mostly had the PCs standing around and watching while other people did things that were important. My players, on the other hand, loved it, and I’ve never really understood why.
I think it might have been that I accidentally gave the campaign a heart, and that heart was the vampire mayor. From the beginning, he had a certain badass mystique about him, and the players were always excited when the story involved him or one of his two vampire lieutenants. The branch of the story that I didn’t abandon, and that I originally thought was the less important one, was about one of his former vampire lieutenants that had betrayed him and was thought dead. As that story became more and more central, the campaign became more fun. In hindsight, it was obvious. Toruf-Tar was the heart of my campaign. He was what it was about, whether I recognized it or not. As events moved closer to that heart, they felt more significant and more fun.
An Illustrative Failure
A few years ago I ran a Fantasy/Old West campaign. The idea was to make it feel as real-world as possible, but with the addition of magic and fantasy races as stand-ins for the old west tropes. The Dwarves were the train engineers and barkeeps, the elves were the city folk from back east, he emancipation proclamation freed the orcs from slavery, the centaurs were the Native Americans, and so on. The campaign story was about a large, secretive construction project outside of town that was supposed to be an aqueduct but was really a cover for a secret gold mine. Oh, and the miners were being being tricked into unearthing an ancient hidden city full of terrifying monsters. The setting was cool, and the characters were great, but the story was weak. In hindsight, it just kind of felt tacked on.
The reason that the story was weak was that it had nothing to do with what made the setting interesting. The most compelling aspects of the setting were the racial and class politics represented and enhanced by the fantasy races. Not surprisingly, a lot of the best moments in the campaign came from scenes where that theme was central. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would try to find a way to make the story be about that instead.
For me, the lesson going forward is to add another criteria to the list of things necessary for a good campaign. Before play begins, I need to figure out what makes my campaign setting special. Then I need to make that a theme for the whole campaign, and come up with a story that emphasizes that theme. If I can’t find a theme, a heart, for my campaign, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
Secondly, once I’ve found that theme, it should become a guiding principle going forward. In the same way that, when faced with a choice between two options I should be asking myself “What rocks most?” I should look at every major decision through the lens of the overriding theme, and make sure that I’m not straying too far off course. If I can accomplish that, I can hopefully turn a good campaign into a great one.
Once upon a time, I was really into comic books. I know, shocking right? In fact, the way that I really got into RPGs wasn’t D&D (though it was the first thing that I played), it was the Marvel Superheroes Role-Playing Game. For those of you who haven’t played it, it has most of the standard components for RPGs – characters had attributes, powers, and skills and they gained experience* that they could use to improve their abilities. One of the things that made the game really fun was that the combat system did a great job of simulating the phenomenon of super-strong characters clobbering each other and emerging unscathed. They had terrific maps of city areas where you could stage battles, and it was not at all uncommon for a character to get knocked off of a building, go through another building, fall 20 stories and then get up and come back for more.
As I got older, I became more of a fan of the little guy. Thor was cool and all, but he was a pansy compared to Daredevil. So I tried to use the same rules system to play grittier stories, with heroes fighting thugs with guns instead of aliens with forcefields. It fell flat. Why? Guns.
“God created man, Sam Colt made them equal.”
Guns are a big problem. They’re cheap, they’re easy to use, and they are way more effective than most superpowers. In the comics, characters only get shot when it helps to move the story. Every other time, the bad guys miss, or the protagonist dodges. In the Marvel System, guns were assumed to be largely ineffectual. Daredevil could eat a couple of bullets and shrug it off. This means that in order to make common street toughs seem dangerous, they needed to be carrying blaster guns and the like – which breaks the gritty, street-level tone that we’re striving for.
So then you decide that you’re willing to change rules systems to get that gritty, 3-color comic feel. You pick up a system where guns and their damage are more realistically modeled. Now you have a new problem: dead player characters. Unless your characters are actually bulletproof, a fight with a few armed thugs is going to be lethal.
Let’s say that you’re playing Daredevil, or even my personal favorite, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He’s agile enough to dodge bullets, and he has a nifty spider-sense to make sure that nobody gets the drop on him. He’s in a fight with a few thugs – let’s say three. He’s in a dark alley somewhere and he’s rescued that poor lady who was being mugged, and now it’s time to deal with the bad guys. He spins a web at them, and they point their guns and shoot at him.
A full automatic pistol can fire about three rounds in a second. So three thugs times three shots gives us nine rounds fired. Let’s say that our thugs aren’t all that good with their guns, and only four of the nine shots are on target. Let’s also posit that Spider-Man is agile enough to dodge the bullets 90% of the time. So, his chances of dodging all four bullets is 0.9^4, or about 66%. This means that 1 in 3 times, Spidey gets shot. Those aren’t very good odds for our favorite web-head.
Now hold on a second. People play realistic campaigns that use guns all the time, right? And those characters aren’t dying left and right, so something has to be wrong here. The difference is that in realistic campaigns that use guns, people use different tactics. They take cover. They provide covering fire. They wear body armor. Most importantly, they use guns themselves, putting truth to the saying that the best defense is a good offense. In a truly realistic campaign, you should only be rolling to dodge a bullet when everything else has failed.
So what does this mean for our hopes of a gritty, realistic campaign using superheroes? Well, it depends on what and how much you are willing to compromise. If the thing that’s important to you is feats of acrobatics and martial prowess overcoming armed men, you’re going to have to use a rules system that tones down the lethality.
If you’re most interested in a realistic setting that happens to have superheroes in it, then you either need to make sure that all of your player characters can survive getting shot several times and shrug it off or you have to accept that they are going to look like SWAT teams with capes. That’s the problem with realistic campaigns. The realism tends to get in the way of the fun.
*The experience system in the Marvel system actually rewarded karma points instead of experience. This system was particularly clever, as you could lose karma for doing evil things (including leaving bad guys to die), so there was an incentive for the players heroically. This did a lot to preserve the comic book feel of the game. Also, you were allowed to spend karma to affect critical die rolls. I think that this is cool in theory, as you could choose to sacrifice character progression for the sake of the story, but in practice it removed a lot of the drama. A lot of the suspense is removed when you know that you can ensure that you can’t fail that one critical roll. That’s why I’m a fan of killing your PCs.
A few weeks ago I talked about why game systems that are closely tied to specific settings can limit the options for players and GMs. Implicit in that is that I have a preference for rules systems that are more universal. In particular, I’m a big fan of GURPS (Generic Universal Role-Playing System). This isn’t meant to be a critique of the other universal rules systems; I haven’t played them enough to criticize them. But I did want to point out some of the things that GURPS does right, and why I think they are important. If you’re not familiar with the GURPS system, you may be interested in looking at GURPS Lite, a free and downloadable abridged version of the rules.
The Character Creation System
This is, far and away, my favorite thing about GURPS. GURPS works on a point-based system, where a player purchases the various attributes, advantages, and skills that make up their character. Additionally, they can choose to acquire disadvantages that will give them more points. As characters progress, the GM can choose to give them more points that they can put into their character. There are no XP and no levels, just points.
There are no classes or limitations on what skills a player may take, so there’s nothing stopping a thief from wielding a broadsword, or a barbarian from learning how to pick a lock. There are templates and examples of typical character archetypes provided, but in my experience they are more of a hindrance than a help once you get familiar with the system.
The thing that I love about this system is that it frees the GM and the players to create any type of character that they find interesting. If you want to play a WW2 fighter ace who worked as a chemist before he joined the war, GURPS can do that. If you want to play a sentient goat with psychic powers, GURPS can do that. And if you want to play a plain old fighter with a big sword, well of course it can do that too. In addition to expanding the options available to players, this also encourages them to build well-rounded characters. Giving a savage warrior a gift for music can add some depth to a character, and the player is more likely to do it if they aren’t being penalized for taking a cross-class skill.
I also really like the system of rewarding players for taking on disadvantages, as the best characters are defined by their weaknesses more than their strengths. Players, particularly during the character-creation process, will usually want to make their character as powerful as possible (because playing a character that’s bad at things isn’t fun). By providing them an incentive to take on disadvantages, the system encourages them to make characters that will be more rewarding to play.
There is, of course, a drawback to all of this flexibility. It is possible to create characters that are overly specialized and narrow in their focus. It is just as possible to make a character that has a wide variety of skills, but isn’t actually good enough at any one thing to stand out. Also, some skills and advantages are more effective than others. This means that it’s possible to create a character that, while having the same number of points as his peers, is considerably less effective. This is why the templates and examples are provided, and why people who are new to the system should be encourage to use them. A master craftsman uses sharp tools.
It Feels Real
GURPS is supposed to be able to handle pretty much any kind of character or campaign, in pretty much any setting. To accomplish this, they’ve created a set of base rules that models reality as much as possible. The best way to accomplish this is to try and model reality as best as possible, and then allow for modifications on the baseline.
Rolls to see if something happens are determined by rolling 3 six-sided dice and summing the results. If the roll is under your character’s skill or relevant attribute, they succeed (which somewhat counterintuitively means that you want low rolls). This creates a crude bell curve, where a 3 is the lowest possible roll, and an 18 is the highest. Much like a d20-based system, the chances of rolling 10 or less is 50%. But the chances of rolling a 12 or under are almost 75%. And the chances of rolling a 3 or an 18 are both about 0.5%. This means that astronomical successes or failures are unlikely, and a character with reasonable levels in a skill can count on it to succeed most of the time. It also means that the best possible die roll comes up 1 time in 200, instead of 1 time in 20. On the one hand, there are fewer “did you see that!” moments. On the other hand, the ones that come up are even more significant. More importantly to me, fluke failures occur very rarely, so a character who invests in having a high skill in something that rely on it succeeding most of the time.
Speaking of skills, I really like the way that they handle them. Each skill has a difficulty associated with it, and that difficulty determines how much it costs per point to improve it. So learning to fight with a knife is easier than a flail, for instance. Also, skills are based on attributes. This means that if a smart character and an average character spend the same amount of time (represented by the number of points) studying math, the smart character is better at it.
They also account for learning curves – the first level of a skill costs one point, the second one costs two, the third costs 4 (and each one above that costs 4 more). This somewhat realistically represents the way that people learn. If you take an intro to Karate class, you are going to improve significantly in your first 6 months of study. You go from zero to decent. If you study for another year, you will continue to get noticeably better. After that, it takes a lot of time and effort to make noticeable improvement. Thie fact that a small investment creates a significant improvement incentivizes players to put a few points into skills outside of their core strengths. If your barbarian puts a points or two into stealth or fast-talk, it can really open up their options during play.
Lastly, GURPS has default rules to handle a situation where a character doesn’t have the skill that is required. If, for instance, your character is forced to use a shield to defend themselves even though they have no experience with shields, they get a default score of their dexterity minus four. This means that while they’re not really experienced with it, and probably won’t be very good at it, they can still make an attempt. This also does a good job of modeling reality when it comes to people with remarkable natural gifts (which describes many RPG characters). Even though I bowled in a league for several years, it was not uncommon for people who have never bowled before to beat me. Why? I’m a klutz, and they are naturally dextrous. In spite of the penalties that they incur by not having put points into Games(Bowling), their default skill is still higher than my skill that I’ve put points into. It sucks for me, but it demonstrates why the model is a good one.
As a general rule, Ben and I have tended to stay platform-neutral in our posts. We’re less interested in what rules people use for their campaigns and more interested in how they craft them. I do, however, believe that certain rules systems constrict or expand the options available to players and GMs in ways that subtly influence the choices they make. I especially feel like this happens in game systems where the rules are tightly interwoven with the setting.
The Sapir-Whorf Theory of Game Systems
The Sapir-Whorf theory in linguistics, or at least the way that it has come to be popularly understood, is that language is the framework of thought, and that if a language lacks a word for a concept, it is more difficult for someone who thinks in that language to conceive and manipulate that concept. Similarly, if a language has numerous words with subtle distinctions for a similar idea, then a speaker/thinker of that language will be more adept at using that concept. The common (though unfortunately untrue) adage for this is “eskimos have thirty words for snow.” The implication is that different types of snow matter for them, and that their expanded vocabulary on the topic gives them the ability to speak (and therefore think) very quickly and precisely about complicated snow-related topics.
The flip side of this is the isolated tribe with no word for war. They don’t have the word because they don’t have the concept. This doesn’t mean that they couldn’t invent or come up with the concept. If they have an idea of two people fighting, or 5 people fighting, it is possible to envision five thousand people fighting. They could probably also come up with the idea of strategy, of feints and ambushes and flanking. But because they lack words for these things, they would speak and think about them cumbersomely. This is why people use jargon – it speeds and simplifies the ability to discuss complicated concepts. As their language expands to include new concepts, their ability to use those concepts also expands.
Like language is the framework of thought, game systems are the framework of the play experience; which one a group chooses to use can similarly empower or impede them.
Wizards Can’t Use Swords*
The most common place where we see this limiting effect is in the character generating process. Many game systems, particularly the ones that are tied to a specific setting, start by having the player select a few broad characteristics for their character. In Dungeons & Dragons, this is your character’s race and class. In Vampire, it’s their clan. In Shadowrun, it’s their race and archetype. You get the idea. Then, having selected these things, the character is granted certain strengths and weaknesses, and a pool of skills to choose from.
This is a common practice because it works. For one, it significantly speeds up the character creation process. It also does a good job of balancing the power levels of different players, preventing Scotty McMinmaxer from making a character with a grab bag of the most powerful skills from each class. Lastly, it ensures that the characters will have skills and abilities that are useful in most campaigns in that setting. These archetypes are tried and true, and there are good reasons to lead people towards them.
This sort of approach, however, can be stifling to creativity when it comes to character creation. It leads, perhaps even encourages, players to start their character concept by saying “I want to play a Dwarven Illusionist,” rather than “I want to play a character with a tragic past and a mean streak.” In a dungeon-crawling hack-and-slash campaign, it might be rewarding to play an archaeologist (that happens to know magic or swordplay or whatever) who studies ancient ruins and marvels at the architecture while the other players loot the treasure. But that occupation doesn’t show up on the list of classes, so people are unlikely consider it as an option.
I Don’t Have a Chapter Here for Spaceships
So let’s say that you are a new GM and your game group wants to play a campaign in a fantasy/space opera/cyberpunk/modern day setting. So you go to the store and you buy a system that is customized for such a setting. After a few sessions, you and your players have figured out the rules. After a few sessions, your players have decided what sort of characters they like. And by the end of that campaign, you’ve probably found your style as a GM.
Everyone had a good time, so it’s time to play the next campaign. What are you going to play? Chances are, it will be another campaign in the same milieu as the first. There are are a couple of reasons for this: Firstly, your players were interested in that milieu to begin with, and they had a good time, so it’s not shocking that they might want to do it again. The other reason isn’t quite as positive. For the vast majority of gamers, learning the rules is not the fun part, it’s the thing that you have to do to get to the fun part. So once they’ve learned a particular set of rules, they’re going to be averse to learning another one. If that set of rules is tightly coupled to a particular setting or genre, then that implicitly limits the group to playing that type of game.
When the group gets bored with their current genre and wants to try something new, they then have to learn another set of rules, and it is easy for people to associate the discomfort and disjointed play of learning new rules with the setting. In my opinion, this is why it is so common to hear somebody say “Yeah, I’ve been playing [setting-specific game system X] for years. I tried [other game system Y] once, but I just didn’t like it.”
Roll a d….26?
The other problem with world-based systems is that they tend to be opaque systems. This is to say that they are optimized for making setting-specific tasks easy and flavorful, and not for letting GMs see how the sausage was made. There might be one set of rules for casting a spell, and a completely different set of rules for picking locks or shooting a gun, for instance. The problem is that, inevitably, the GM will be faced with a situation that the rules just don’t cover. In a system with a consistent and transparent set of rules for all/most situations, this isn’t so hard. You come up with some sort of skill or default and an appropriate penalty, and you move on. In opaque systems, this is more difficult. At the core, the process is the same — the GM is deciding some way to handle it that is slightly outside the rules as written. They are using judgment to decide how hard that thing should be, and they’re making a call as to how to handle it. The problem is that if it takes too long it breaks the player experience.
Part of the reason that those first few session with a new rules system are so annoying is that the rules get in the way of getting immersed in the play experience. When both the GM and the players are well-acquainted with the rules, they become natural and secondhand. They fade into the background and people cease to really think about them. Whenever the GM has to bust out the rule book and figure out how something works (otherwise known as every time that grappling occurs), the immersion is broken, and people are reminded that they are sitting around a table playing a game. If the GM can say, “I don’t have anything for that. Uh…Roll skill and skill.” that’s not too disruptive. If, however, he has to pause the action to debate which of several disparate special-case rules to model his spur-of-the-moment house rule on, it’s going to be impossible for the players to stay in the flow.
Opaque systems also make custom character traits more difficult. If your game system makes characters pay points for skills or abilities, or awards them benefits for taking on disadvantages, it is common for a player to want a skill or attribute that isn’t listed in the book. Generic systems, because they have to be flexible to handle any sort of situation, usually provide guidelines for how to create new character attributes and cost them in a balanced way. World-based systems, which are optimized for a particular setting, streamline the process by obfuscating how things are costed. This makes life slightly more difficult for the GM, and can lead to good ideas being left unused because they’re not in the book.
Generic Systems are Hard
So if world-based systems are so constricting, why do people use them? Because they’re quick, and they’re easy. A system of rules that can accommodate combat using any sort of weapon from any time period is going to be more complex than one that only worries about swords and bows. Creating characters is faster and easier if the book can guide you through the process and give you a small set of options to choose from. My GMing style lends itself to discrete campaigns with a beginning and ending, and I like to change the setting dramatically from one campaign to the next to keep things fresh. I also really enjoy non-traditional characters. I think that it is more rewarding for the player to invent a character that intrigues them in a setting and then figure out how to make it work than it is to hand them a list of occupations to choose from. So for me, the extra investment of learning a generic system is well worth it. I wouldn’t judge someone for limiting their options by playing a setting-specific system as long as it is meeting their needs. As always, the important thing is to make sure that you and your players are having as much fun as possible.
This is the fifth and final post in a series. In the first post, I created a fantasy setting called Karthasia. Then in the next three posts, I created example PCs for that setting. In this post, I’ll go through the process of creating an outline of a character-focused campaign using those PCs.
Step 1: The Setting
Karthasia is the name of the game world, and Drania is the country in that world where most of our action will take place. Drania is a theocratic kingdom that spans from the swampy lowlands of the south to the great forests of the north. Its capital is a port city in the south called Barotha. It is bordered on the east and west by large mountain ranges. Drania has traditionally been governed by a theocracy run by an order of benevolent priests called the Albanists (who worship a deity named Alba). Albanist priests are able, through their deity, to heal wounds, bless and strengthen others, and to create light. The police force and army of the Albanists are known as Protectors. The Protectors are white knights, complete with horses, plate armor, and blessed weapons. The Albanists, while generally “good,” are intolerant of those of other faiths. If someone does not worship Alba, or performs magics other than those that come from Alba’s blessing, they are considered to be heretics and pariahs.
Among those shunned by the Albanist priests are the Order of Arcane Brothers, a scholarly order of sorcerers who have learned to control the forces of the four classical elements – Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Though their magic is effective at any location, being near the presence of great elemental forces improves their study, so their keeps tend to be located in remote and exotic locations, such volcanic islands and cliff faces near waterfalls. The Order is both secular and politically neutral, and requires all of its members to disavow all gods and nations when they join for the sake of the pursuit of pure knowledge.
Though the mountains on the borders mean that Drania has few foreign enemies, the Albanist government has battled for many years against The Nine Tribes, a loosely confederated nation of primitive woodsmen who inhabit the great forests of the north. The Nine Tribes are governed by their shamans, powerful shapeshifters who can call upon the spirits of the forest to control plants and animals. Over the course of several centuries, the Albanists have driven the Nine Tribes further and further into the wilderness while expanding and building new cities.
The last major faction, the Xanx, are a sect of demon-worshipping priests. They can speak to spirits, raise the dead, and place deadly curses on those who oppose them. Although they are ancient enemies of the Albanists, they have been dormant for many years, and were thought defeated. Three years ago, the Xanx performed a surprise coup, slaughtering most of the Albanist priests and protectors, and installing their own government. They coordinated this surprise attack with the Nine Tribes, and promised them that they could reclaim the lands that have been taken from them.
The Xanx installed their own rules and laws, enforced by Enforcers, black knights accompanied by fearsome hellhounds. The few surviving Albanists have been driven into hiding, and have formed an underground resistance. The Nine Tribes slaughtered the inhabitants of the northern cities, and have begun moving further south. Through the power of their shamans, the forest is swiftly regrowing, and the cities and roads of the north are broken and overgrown as though they had been abandoned for centuries.
Step 2: The Cast
- N’Kava Tharak is a warrior of the Nine Tribes who was banished for killing one of his tribesmen in a duel. He may return to his land only if he somehow convinces the government of Drania to recognize the Nine Tribes as a nation, and name N’Kava as its ruler. N’Kava is headstrong and stubborn, and doesn’t like to take orders. He doesn’t go out of his way to find fights, but when he fights, he will not stop until his opponent is dead. N’Kava fights with the traditional spear, bow, and axe of the Nine Tribes, and he is not above sneaking up on someone and killing them when they’re not looking.
- Olcanor Parin is a member of the Order of Arcane Brothers who is a devout believer in Alba. He wanted to be a priest, but when forced to choose between his faith and pursuing his talent for sorcery, he chose the latter. Though he swore to renounce Alba and Drania, he was never really able to kill his faith. When he heard that Drania had fallen and the Albanists had been slain, he left the Order to help the resistance, effectively ending his membership in the order. Olcanor is a man of great moral principle. He is honest and forthright, and will only use violence when he is absolutely forced to do so. Through his magic, he is able to control the forces of Fire and Water.
- Alsa Corvino is an Enforcer in the Black Guard of the Xanx government. Before that, she was a Protector for the Alabanists, but she had become disillusioned with the Albanists, and was persuaded to betray them. Since the Xanx have taken over, she has definitely noticed a difference in how things are run, and has begun to regret her role in the coup. Alsa is tough, competent, and a skilled soldier. She is very direct (perhaps even tactless), and dislikes subterfuge. She fights in the heavy black armor of the Dark Knights with a broadsword and a shield, accompanied by her hellhound Kimo.
- Dranis Io, head of the Xanx government, and the mastermind behind the coup. This guy is most likely The Big Bad for the campaign, and consequently the most important NPC. It would be easy to just paint him as being purely evil, a pastiche of every corny villain. But it’s far more interesting if he has at least a slight degree of sophistication. So, let’s say that our villain is a former Albanist priest that saw all of the small evils and impurities that come along with trying to run a government and though he struggled to remain pure and virtuous, the realities of the world forced him to make tough, gray-area choices. Eventually he decided that being purely virtuous was impossible, and that he might as well be selfish and evil. He devoted his life to overthrowing the Albanists, so that others would not have to toil under the expectations of morality.
- Ravello Gormas, Chief Enforcer. In this case, we can use an NPC that we created when we were making Alsa Corvino – Ravello, the protector that persuaded her to betray the Albanists. Ravello is an opportunist and a mercenary who is only working for the Xanx because they are willing to pay more.
- Yavik Aresto, leader of the Albanist resistance. One of the few remaining priests, who led up some obscure branch of the church/government. He’s now considered to be the Theocrat of the Albanist church/state in exile. The equivalent of the Secretary of Education becoming the president. He’s resilient and unyielding in his faith and confidence and provides a good example for the resistance, but he’s overly cautious and afraid to take risks. He knows that if he makes a bad decision, the last traces of the Albanists could be destroyed. He was one of Olcanor’s teachers before he joined the Brothers.
- Gravin Nor, white knight. The most highly ranked of the surviving protectors. Gravin has a fiery temper and a fierce desire to take the battle to the enemy, but is kept in check by Yavik. He was Alsa’s commander before the coup, and would/will have a hard time trusting her again.
- Silas Calinathari, crime boss. Barotha doesn’t have a mafia per se, but Silas has managed to put himself into a situation where he gets a piece off of most of the action. Silas is a violent cutthroat opportunist, but he always comes through on his end of a deal.
Step 3: The Big Story
Now that we’ve established where we’re doing things, and who shall be doing them, we can finally address the question of what they shall do. The setting has one obvious story hook, the evil Xanx government that overthrew the benevolent Albanists, and consequently all of the characters have stories that relate to it in some way. N’Kava needs to get some government to appoint him lawful ruler of the Nine Tribes, Olcanor seeks to restore the Albanists to power, and Alsa seeks atonement for her role in the coup. The Big Story for this campaign is almost definitely going to be the PCs working to overthrow the government, although each will do it for their own reasons.
The most important question, when crafting a character-focused campaign, is how to get the PCs to work together in the first place. Since they don’t start as a unified party, and each has different goals for their character, this can be a bit tricky. When I’m working on a four-player campaign, I usually try to have two threads to the story at the beginning, and have two of the PCs be interested in each thread. Then later, when the two threads turn out to be related, all four PCs are working together. In the case of a three-player campaign, there are often still two threads to the plot, but one character bridges both. If you get really clever, you can create three threads, with each PC having ties to two of them. This makes them extremely likely to encounter one another naturally, but can seem a bit contrived.
I develop these plot threads by knowing my endpoint (the PCs working to overthrow the Xanx government) and my begin points (the PCs initial goals and situations) and then creating a story that leads them naturally from one point to another. In this case, the characters’ motivations are already skewed a bit towards overthrowing the Xanx*, so few machinations are required.
Olcanor is actively seeking to restore the Albanists, so his earliest actions are most likely going to relate to finding the underground resistance. As the resistance is underground, that should be no easy feat, especially since he, as an Arcane Brother, is persona non grata in their religion. There is no way to know exactly how a player might approach this problem, but there are a few obvious lines of inquiry. The first would simply be to walk into town and openly tell people in taverns and the like that you are looking for the resistance and want to help them. Another way would be to seek out people who are likely to know about things that go on outside the law and ask them. This could be a place where Silas, the crime lord would come into play. There could be some fun tension between Olcanor’s morals and the tasks that Silas would ask of him for payment. Either path has the potential to get him in trouble with local law enforcement, and consequently put him in contact with Alsa.
N’Kavak’s first goal when he gets into town is going to be to contact someone in the Xanx government to try to get them to name him as the leader of the sovereign nation of the Nine Tribes. There are a lot of different ways that he might go about that task. He could walk into the temple/government offices and demand to speak to someone, or he might ask around in taverns and try to arrange a meeting with someone. Either way is likely to attract attention, especially since he’s probably the only Tribesman in the whole city. If he causes a ruckus, I would be inclined to have the cops come to get him, and finagle a way to make sure that Alsa is part of the group that comes to pick him up. If he is particularly tactful and/or clever, I actually think that it would rockmost for him to be allowed to speak to Dranis Io, the head priest of the Xanx government. He could plead his case in person to Dranis (with guards, including Alsa, present) and be told that there is no way that the Xanx will ever recognize the Nine Tribes as a nation. In either case, it shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange a circumstance where he will realize that the Xanx will not negotiate with him. The real question is what happens after that?
In order for his story to progress, he would need to find and join the rebellion, but his character lacks the sort of social skills that will make that task a reasonable one to rely upon. So I think that we have the rebellion find him instead. Since he’s a savage in the city, and the savages have been, well, savaging other cities in the north, he is likely to be attacked. As he’s not the type to walk away from a fight, and has a disadvantage that requires him to fight to the death, he’s likely to have more than one scuffle that others will see. Additionally, he is well-suited to escaping a small number of guards – he wears no armor, carries light weapons, and is very quick and agile. Evading a few armored men carrying heavy swords and shields long enough to climb up on a building should be a reasonable task. All of which is to say that his presence in the city is likely to cause a stir, and he would probably come to the attention of the rebellion.
This way, it doesn’t really matter how N’Kavak proceeds through the story; if he causes a commotion but escapes the cops, the rebellion can approach him with a promise of safety and a place to hide. If he ends up captured and locked up in prison, then they could arrange a jailbreak, or a covert operation to have him freed. Why would they want him? Well, maybe they have a need for a stealthy warrior to lead a strike in the capitol. Or perhaps they need someone to go to one of the captured and overgrown cities in Tribesman territory to obtain a powerful item, and they need a guide. I like that last one, as it could make for a good setpiece.
Now let’s look at Alsa. My intended story arc is to have her be forced to do and see things that make her decide to turn against the Xanx and work for the resistance. We’ve also established above that she will probably be the “glue” character that ties the PCs together, so she’ll have run-ins with both Olcanor and N’Kava before she is given an incentive to quit. All of this poses a tricky timing problem. Without our characters feeling railroaded, we want all of them to join the rebellion at more or less the same time. Olcanor is on a direct line to find and join them, N’Kava has a little bit of legwork to do first, and Alsa has a fair amount of things to do beforehand. We’ll need to add some buffer for the other two.
There’s also the problem, for Olcanor and Alsa, of convincing the rebellion to accept their help. Olcanor is a heretic and a pariah in the eyes of their church-in-exile, and Alsa was(or still is, depending on how she chooses to play it) a high-ranking Enforcer. If this were a video game, she would be required to go on a quest to bring back an item and prove her worth. But since this isn’t a video game, we have more subtle options at our disposal, and I think that we can do better than that. What if she captured a high-ranking member of the rebellion, or freed one who had already been captured? That seems like it would go a long way towards getting them to trust her.
In fact, depending on how N’Kava’s story came out, the same jailbreak that freed him might be the one that released one of the alliance leaders. In this case, he’s probably not the target of the jailbreak, just a lucky beneficiary that they pick up since they’re already there. We could bring Olcanor into it by creating some task as part of the jailbreak that requires his unique gifts.
Then, after the three PCs have joined the resistance, they get sent to a city in the north to retrieve the powerful McGuffin of McGregor or somesuch. They return to the city, McGuffin in tow, and then plan and execute a raid on the palace to overthrow the heads of the Xanx government (for the sake of cinematic story, we can assume that the common folk hate the government enough that they will rise up in other cities once the central power has been removed). Sounds like a campaign to me.
Step 4: The Small Story
As we decided above, we’re going to have to come up with some stuff for Olcanor and N’Kava to do so that the timing with Alsa’s story coincides correctly. So first let’s lay out Alsa’s story to see how much time we need to pad for them.
The first couple of sessions in a campaign are really critical, and I have specific goals that for them. Firstly, we need to give the player a chance to get the hang of their character, and to get a feel for their strengths and weaknesses. We probably want to create some sort of minor combat for them, and a situation where they have to use some of their other key skills. Basically, it’s a chance for them to find their feet before the stakes go up. The tricky part here is giving them something to do where they can afford to fail, but what they are doing still matters to the story somehow.
For Alsa, her occupation makes it easy for us to craft a scenario where she gets into a winnable fight early on. Her boss, Rovello, tells her that they have a tip about a rebellion hideout. She’s to take a handful of Enforcers and go capture or kill them. The battle can last just long enough for her to take out a couple of people, and then the rebels surrender. During the fight, she sees a tall, young guy with snow-white hair sneak out through a secret passage. One of the captured rebels is a big deal leader-type. She takes him back to the palace and delivers him to the dungeons. As she’s leaving, she can hear him being tortured for information.
The next morning, she gets sent to collect taxes from a family that hasn’t paid. The family is very poor, and she ends up having to take one of the oldest brothers into state slavery to pay the debt. That afternoon, she runs into one of her informants, who tells her that there is some foreigner in robes asking after the resistance. She goes and has her encounter with Olcanor – either fighting him** or just telling him to lay off.
The day after that, she ends up having to deal with N’Kava in some fashion, depending on how he handles things. On her way back to her quarters, she sees Ravello, along with a whole bunch of Enforcers. He orders her to accompany him. They go to a cellar where some rebels are hiding, mostly women and children. They fight off some guards, then board up the cellar and set fire to the building. She can hear the screams from inside and smell flesh burning. This (hopefully) will be the trigger that makes her decide to join the resistance instead. From there on out, we can’t really script what will happen.
So, she encounters Olcanor on day 2, and N’Kavak on day 3. That means that we need to give Olcanor something to do before he gets into the city. He’s coming from a volcanic island by ship, so how about pirates? Everybody loves pirates. For a character with Fire and Water magic, a wooden boat at sea should be a fun place to test out his abilities. To tie it in to the story, we can have the ship captain mention that the pirates are actually paid by the Xanx to collect “taxes” for the government.
N’Kava needs two days worth of lead time before he hits town. Since we know that we’re going to be sending the players to one of the ruined cities in the north, we could have him start near there. He’s traveling on his way to the city and gets hired on by some merchants for protection. They are looking for a specific item from the city, and have a map to the temple where it is supposed to be found. A minor dungeon crawl ensues, with some battles with beasties. For his second session, they are ambushed by Tribesman as they camp in the city. He can choose to fight for either side. Then, in his third session he gets to town, (almost definitely) gets into trouble, and runs into the law.
And that’s about it. As the GM, we’d need to polish off some of the details. First we’d flesh out some of the NPCs mentioned above (the merchants, the informant, the captured rebel leader, etc). We’d also need draw a rough map of the northern city (which needs a name) and the temple within it. Once those things are done, we’re ready to get started.
*As I mentioned above, this is because I really only provided one interesting hook for the setting – the evil government in charge. If I wanted a more complicated campaign, there would probably be a handful of other interesting forces and things going on (all of which would end up being related at the end) for the players to latch on to.
**I think that it’s totally fine for the PC’s first interactions to be confrontational, and to even result in combat. Players enjoy fighting against players when given the opportunity, and they will usually find a way to end the confrontation non-lethally.