Finding the Heart of Your Campaign

October 27, 2010 Leave a comment

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.


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

Of Capes and Guns

October 12, 2010 1 comment

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.


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

Why GURPS is Good

September 28, 2010 1 comment

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.

Die Rolls

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.

Mad Skillz

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.

Categories: Tools and Techniques

No One Wants To Hear Your Campaign Story

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Over the years, I’ve heard many times advice against sharing campaign stories. Generally, it’s just as deep as the title of this post. Some seem to merely have memorized this piece of advice, but, of course, I’d like to take a little bit to analyze it. Picture, if you will, the stereotypical situation: While browsing the shelves at your FLGS, some fellow nerd notices that you’ve picked up the source book on Northern Halflings. As a way to introduce himself, he tells you how he once played a Northern Halfling back in the prior edition of the rules. In that campaign, his buddy Jeremy played a half-orc barbarian and was always saying inappropriate things. Once, they were sneaking into this Necromancer’s lair to get a gemstone to cure the citizens of the kingdom from a plague and when they got to the ritual chamber, it turned out that the Necromancer was…and at this point, no one but Jeremy and his friends knows what happens because you’ve zoned out while listening.

To be fair, we’ve probably all told a story about our friend Jeremy and his half-orc that’s only tangentially related to the topic at hand or that we let drag on too long, etc. But poor story-telling aside, it still seems as if campaign war stories are harder to tell well than other stories about your life. Why is that? I feel that there are basically two things at work, here.

Not Enough Context

Can you imagine picking a scene, or even a whole chapter out of your favorite book and trying to tell someone about the best part? How terrible would that be? For anything good to make any sense, you’d have to keep explaining everything in parenthesis: “Then Gandalf (he’s this old Wizard guy who always blahs and says bloo) says to Aragorn (he’s a Ranger (which is a group of guys who roam the north) and heir of Elendil (who was…)) that he’s got to reforge his sword at Rivendell (which is where a bunch of Elves live). See, the sword was important because…” Anything worth relating will probably need a fairly nuanced understanding of the material, but in the space of an anecdote you’re effectively just explaining the joke.

This is the you-had-to-be-there factor. It’s not that the funny (or whimsy or whatever) only existed in that moment, it’s that it relies on an intuitive understanding of some fairly complex relationships between ideas that really can’t elegantly be compressed. This could be solved or worked around by either figuring out how to make a (much) longer story entertaining so as to build up the intuitive understanding over time, or by being even more concise and abandon an attempt to convey something subtle.

Nothing To Care About

If you consider most campaigns, there’s not a lot of characterization (evidenced by folks’ tendency to describe their character by race and class, or whatever equivalent) and not a lot of plot. If the campaign is a series of went in that hole and killed that thing and got this loot, you’re just not giving another human being a lot of hooks to get invested in or people to relate to.

It’s not that there’s nothing to be invested in. The dungeon crawl style campaign is a mostly visceral experience. You can describe what you did in what order and what happened because of it, but if it’s mostly mechanics and dice rolls, then it boils down to a few sentences pretty quick and it’s very, very hard to convey that sense of accomplishment, or winning; that “and that felt good” aspect. Imagine someone who was very into extremely difficult jigsaw puzzles trying to tell you about their latest conquest. There’s no denying the accomplishment or their feeling of satisfaction, but there’s not a lot of narrative arc to the tale.

The Counter Example

This is not precisely a counter-example, but I have a friend (besides Stewart) who I have talked to about Kjemmen from a very early stage in order to bounce ideas off of, etc. Since he was around as the world was getting built and heard about the PCs as they were getting built and then heard the beginning of the story as it was unfolding… he now asks me for an update when we see each other. It was sort of a disorienting experience when I realized I was being asked to relate a campaign story. But I realized that the above two things don’t apply at all in this case.

First off, Kjemmen isn’t a dungeon crawl. The characters have personalities and goals and ways of thinking. The world is deep and (at least to me and the folks involved, including my only-sort-of-involved friend) interesting. The events of one session can have repercussions for a long time to come or represent the culmination of lots of various plot threads. So there’s plenty of hooks for a third party to get emotionally invested in. Secondly, I haven’t been trying to compress it. So all the subtle and complex relationships between ideas have been built up over time with him. If I say, “…and it’s not like Phethil would blah,” my friend will say, “God no. That would be insane!” without my having to explain why.

I don’t really view the telling of good campaign stories as a problem to be solved or anything, so I don’t want to draw any conclusions about how to do it right. However, I would like to draw your attention to the idea that a character-focused story has a lot more meat for people to get invested in and that this kind of thing is a hallmark of the Dann Campaign. This isn’t just true of third parties to whom you (or your players) are trying to explain some aspect of the campaign. This goes for you and your players. Without a character-based (or at the least a story-heavy) campaign, the emotional investment has to come solely from shared experience, problem solving and the like, which are purely meta-game concepts. On the other hand, with that focus on story, you can get investment in other people’s characters, in NPCs, in the culture of the game world, etc in addition to those meta-game sources of investment.

Categories: RPGs as a Medium

The Trouble with World-Based Game Systems

August 31, 2010 1 comment

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.

*Except Gandalf.