Thursday, April 8, 2010

Cloak, Dagger, and Dragons!

Mike and I have come up wth a number of pieces of roleplaying discussion shorthand. Sort of small quips that remind us of big concepts when we are talking about games (about what went right and what went wrong). I've already talked about one of these ("stunt your failure") in 'The Death of Cool' post, but there are a couple of others that I think are really useful, and one in particular that caused me to write this article.

1. The Belly Of the Dragon.

This is a concept that relates to getting players onto your plot and not some other plot that you might've accidentally hinted at. Basically the story goes like this: your players are at the local inn. You have a big adventure planned with the forest elves. They need the player's help to overthrow their god and regain their sense of morality. You have a bunch of NPCs, compelling story hooks and such, but the adventure starts with them in the woods, meeting the elves. So you give the players the hook: there have been a lot of bandit attacks out in the woods, if only someone could help! Instead of charging off into the woods like you wanted, the players say "Well, we should get the local lord or duke or whomever to fix this." You panic. Of course there is a duke and he doesn't like bandits, so you need some reason for him not to be interested so you say "the local duke doesn't care about these people, he won't help." a player responds with "we need to make him see the plight of these people". And so it continues. And eventually you find yourself saying something like "Well, you could go up to his castle, which is protected by the king's elite guard and is renowned across the land as the most defensible fortification for 100 miles, but a dragon has swallowed the castle whole and now its in the belly of a gaint dragon. You think you've won, they won't go up there now. The players on the other hand hear "there is a lot of cool stuff at the castle, it must be where he wants us to go, plus we get to fight a dragon!".

This concept boils down to: if you place too many cool obstacles in front of players, it isn't a turn off, sometimes it is a challenge and the more you heap on, the more some players will want to tackle those challenges. I think this is the reason I sometimes drag games off course. I almost always seek the plot like an arrow, but if the GM starts building up some problem or place, I will think that in the plot and start pushing towards it.

Some ways to counteract the belly of the dragon effects include sudden role reversal... "Oh the duke will talk to you, yeah, and he wants to hire you to route out the bandits, no we don't need to roleplay the interaction with the duke". Another technique would be the metagame hints ("you feel a pull to go out into the woods", or "your childhood friend is traveling this road and he may get hit by the bandits!". Basically, though it boils down to: if you find yourself talking about things that aren't in your grand plot, stop! Don't talk about things the players aren't supposed to do, either it convinces them not to do something (which could've happened quicker by not talking about it) or it derails the game.

2. No more secrets!

This is a technique that generated some controversy at the retreat. The basic idea is that secrets are bad, or at least not very interesting. I want to talk about this from 2 perspectives: player and GM secrets. This post was actually inspired by this Geek Girls Rule!! post. I was struck by one particular sentence: "It’s friends only as much of the information there is not stuff other players/characters would necessarily know". This is exactly the sort of reasoning I want to argue against. (Note: I have no idea what trust level exists between players in Tammy's game and it may be the case that she has completely valid and awesome reasons for hiding this stuff)

First off GM secrets. In general these take the form of plot points or other things. Some of this is OK. But a lot, in my opinion, should just be thrown away. For instance, lets say you have a game plan of the players creating a rock band, getting killed in a plane crash, and recruited by Satan to corrupt the world through rock and role in order to be placed back on earth. This was a great game that was run by Keith a long time ago ("Paladins for Satan"). Now that game went well, but it could've easily gone badly, because our character instructions were "make a rock band". Now, for instance, we could've make a christian country music group. That would've been bad. While the character conflict over serving Satan might've been delicious, the meat of the game was supposed to occur after we were back on earth, doing his bidding (As it turns out we made a death metal band and everything was great). In my opinion, it would've been better to be like "make a rock band who will be recruited by Satan to corrupt the earth". Now, yes, I have just revealed a major plot point. But that plot point is going to occur and I need the players to say yes if we are ever going to have that awesome rock off between the players and the 2nd coming of Jesus. This also allows people to make that christian rock band, with the full knowledge that they WILL be turned to the side of evil (this is a form of player by in through character generation).

It is my firm opinion that whenever you have a secret as a GM you should think long and hard about keeping it a secret from any players. Even if it is a secret from the characters (this doesn't really matter), it shouldn't be a secret from the players. For one thing, people enjoy the game a lot more when they know some big thing is going to happen, and what better way to indicate that than telling them what the big thing is. Trust in your players to keep it OOC, and run with it.

I said I also wanted to approach this from a player perspective. Secrets for players seem to take 2 forms: back story secrets and character planning secrets. So, lets say you're a Cylon (traitor) in a Battlestar Galactica game. Think about what is cooler: the other players seeing all the cool cylon things you do as you subtle work to mess up the ship, or the other players being bored as you talk to the GM out in the hall yet again. Additionally you should always be thinking of ways to reveal to the other characters your secrets. As Mike once said "if you never reveal a character secret in play, it isn't any different from not having a secret at all". As a player you should have a plan for the best way the other characters find out your secret. Do they catch you shooting up before a mission? Do you tell them in a tear-filled confession. It may not work out the way you're thinking, but having a plan and communicating that plan to the GM can make for some really awesome roleplaying.

At the end of the day, both GM and player secrets should be revealed. If you never reveal them, its like they never happened. Have plan for getting them out, and take any opportunity that comes up. If you hide it away, then you never get to have an awesome story about the secret, and that is what you want, right? Hiding things from players is almost never right, since it excludes players from enjoying all aspects of the game. Hiding things from characters has a necessity, but all secrets should have an arc that includes their reveal, so that you have have some cool story around the secret (otherwise why have the secret at all?).


Monday, April 5, 2010

Look to the Left, Look to the Right: Who is having fun here?

One of the things that was very interesting to me that came up at the retreat was the concept of player engagement rescue. What I mean by this is, sometimes, for whatever reason, players are not engaged. As the GM, you try to watch carefully for this, and reengage the player as much as possible. There are lots of GM'ing techniques for this, and really the GM side of this equation is worth writing about 10 books. But what I want to talk about today is the player side of this story. If you are another player in this game, it is a really cool idea to try to look out for this and fix this as well. It takes the pressure off the GM (if successful) and is often even more engaging than what the GM could do with his limited camera time.

I first noticed this technique when used by Chris Lightfoot, a great guy and an awesomely experienced gamer, and I'm embarrassed to say I only noticed it because he did it to me. I and several others were not really engaged with the game or with the plot, and he came over, got us organized and got us back in the game, and it was awesome. Ever since then I have been trying to do the same for others (in addition to figure out how to be more engaged all the time myself), and sometimes I can do stuff and sometimes I can't.

The easiest form of this technique is very simple and also, in my opinion, effective. Simply ask for another player's help. Going out to investigate something? You need the taciturn warrior to accompany you, no question, what if you ran into trouble? Trying to lure the big bad out of a cave, well, the only thing is to have that barmaid turned adventurer on your arm to help you, she might know something about caves! It's pretty cool to see the other player turn to you and suddenly become more active; to know that you just made their game experience at least a little bit better.

There are several different ways I've seen to approach this technique. First of all, ask for their help, as above. Second would be to look at what they are interested in doing (what do they come alive for) and engineer a spot in the plan for them (perhaps even by scrapping your intricate sneaking plan and letting the 9 ft tall cyborg guy smash through a wall to get into the secret lab). Another technique, which has to be used with care, is to engage them adversarial, if the game is of that form... See what their characters care about and suggest destroying or maiming it/them. Or just outright attack them in some manner. Players are never more involved than when defending what they care about. (Note: this can only be used with players who can play with this level of confrontation, unsure players or new players will almost always just fold and go along with your plans, even if it does require the bloody sacrifice of Aunt May, and then you've driven them away even more).

I'd love to hear how people have approached this technique or idea themselves, weather it is what has worked well on you or what you have used to good effect. As players there are a lot of things that we can do that the GM just can't (like change plans). This is, in my opinion, a high level technique that a lot of people just don't think about, but can really turn a so-so game into a great game.

Next time perhaps some review of some interesting concepts we've come up with, like "the belly of the dragon!".

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Death of Cool

Okay, so I don't have as much time to write tonight, so this may not be as long or as thought out as some of my other posts. In this write up, I would like to discuss stunting (a subject you know I think a lot about if you've read this blog), and make a case against them, which may surprise some long-time roleplaying companions of mine.

First of all, what is stunting? In a great comment to my last post, Tim asked why we needed a special word for it at all, wasn't it simply explaining things in a cool way? I can definitely see how for most roleplayers I have seen (outside of my weekly groups) and for most systems, their form of stunting is exactly that: a cool way to describe a sword swing or your character's efforts to unlock in the mysteries of the tree folk's magic. However, I believe that what we normally engage in during play sessions with my group is much more complex, and does deserve its own word, simply because it is that much more complicated.

A great stunt is a story all on its own. It has a beginning middle and end. Narrative control is seized from the GM and promptly used to execute feats of awesomeness impossible without the ability to control everyone and everything around them. There may be dialogue in there, there may be graphically described magical abilities or items. There will almost certainly be some shaking of the earth or some equally significant sign that the universe is in awe of the proceedings. Ideally the conclusion brings forth something that has been hinted at throughout the rest of the stunt. The best stunts call in character traits and previous events that remind everyone why they are here, fighting against the challenge. And the absolute best stunts leave the other players and the GM gaping, slack jawed at the spectacle of pure imagination that has been erected before them, their minds desperately racing to take it all in, for the stunt only lasts for a moment before the next person wipes the slate clean to begin their sword-born story of glory and death.

Stunts have become so integral to the ways that the sunday crew played (when it was happening), that we even had games that were essentially nothing but one long stunt after another. Persona was beaten out of shape in order to support more fully this fully stunt-driven game we were playing. Now don't get me wrong, that slack jawed amazement is something to experience. It is addictive like crack, and you're always looking for the next awesomeness high. I think it appeals to the action movie fan inside most of us, the one that wants one more explosion in the movie, one more gun fight, or one more no-holds-barred brawl on the wing of the airplane. It is an adrenaline rush, and it lets you tell very cool stories. As an example of some of the crazy things that can be done, here is one of the player-created stories that occurred in one of my games without my planning or even helping with it:

The character was the last detective at the end of time, when murder no longer existed for no one could die. He was the only one to still care, because he was the last one to loose someone. He coulnd't help but spend every moment thinking about her. Even when the last star died out signaling the end of humanity he thought of nothing but her. While traveling back through time to save everyone he thought only of her, and when the climactic battle had finished, he only had thoughts for the one thing that gave him strength to see it through. He realized something then: in order for the human race to live, in order for him to complete his role in the pivitol battle, he needed his motivation. So, as his final act, he used his time travel powers to go forward once again to the end of a star and kill his one true love.

That is a pretty awesome story, I think. If I saw that as the plot of a movie, I would love it. And, because the player basically made up the story as he went (for instance: he didn't know at the get-go that time travel would be involved in the game), he couldn't get help from me as the GM to tell his story (or plan it out at all until it was almost the end already). With our form of stunting, however, he didn't need to get my buy in as the GM. He was free to tell his story, because like clockwork he got extensive narrative control whenever there was a significant challenge.

Maybe, hopefully, I have conveyed to some of you what stunting is like in our group. My opinion is that it is an extreme form of storytelling that occurs at break-neck speed, concentrating on combat (though can be done for just about anything), and whose main focus is to spread awesomeness around like rice at a wedding.

This, however, isn't good enough for me anymore. What I have found is that as we concentrate on stunting, as we perform the stunts, even if we are telling an awesome character driven story like the one above, it abandons a large piece of more traditional roleplaying. One of the great thrills I get in roleplaying is fully connecting with my character, sinking into their mind and their behaviors, and experiencing their emotions. Its the same thrill I get from acting. Now,I know that many people approach roleplaying very very differently. For me its all about the emotion and the in character feelings. For others, different things (which I won't even try to get into here). But for me there is this strong element of characterization and of in-character thoughts. Even if you don't play looking for this feeling, I think / hope most people would say that this is at least part of the roleplaying experience (disagree? comment it, baby!). When we stunt, as we have trained each other to do in my groups, the characterization disappears, there just isn't any time or need for it. Why try to roleplay out a story when I can just tell it easily when the next stunt opportunity comes my way?

Stunt provides another large challenge: the uninitiated. I have had countless discussions with people in my group about initiating new players into stunting. We are all stunting up a story in the game, and the new people probably aren't at all. In fact they may not know where to begin (those who didn't start stunting with us just see our current level of skill and not the long climb to get there). It can be very intimidating. And intimated players rarely have a good time.

At the retreat (see this had to relate back somehow). I ran 4 games. 3 of them were stunt platform games, and one was not. Guess which one worked the best? People didn't know always how to act or what level of buy-in was expected (fulled-stunted games require all the buy-in you can give). They would get irritated at their own lack of experience at thinking of stunts and feel discouraged. Also, as I player I wouldn't've enjoyed these games. Yes, they could be quite fun on a surface level, there was a lot of action and plot, and if you put it in there, character driven story. But they wouldn've never triggered any deep emotions within me, and I never feel very connected with my stunt platform characters.

It is for this reason that I think I'm done with stunt platform games entirely. Small-scale stunts themselves I definitely will still support and encourage, but I'm going to try to keep the focus away from the stunt platforms and on the characters (or perhaps the spotlight will be on whatever I figure out the players want to be doing with their characters). I love the large scale stunts a lot, and I think they have helped me to become a much better GM (for several reasons relating to greatly improved descriptive powers to preventing blocking training), but I think it may be time to let stunts take a back burner to other techniques and ideas, like the ones that I have been discussing in this blog this week.

Tomorrow: Player engagement techniques! The Retreat continues!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Blood and Sand

So today I wanted to write about an exciting new GMing technique I tried out at the retreat. Mike created this technique for his Amber group down at Georgia Tech. I think he might've gotten the idea from my series of Devil games that I've run with the experienced Amber crew up here, where hard choices made by the characters shape the world around them. Unlike my decisions, which for the most part took place outside of combat, Mike places these decisions entirely inside combat (well, I should say that I assume he has hard large-scale choices outside of combat too, but that he also brings them inside combat as well). What results is something very interesting: roleplaying doesn't stop when the swords come out.

At least if you're me, every time your character resorts to violence you feel a twinge of regret that you aren't talking in character some more (I'm not saying this ever stops me, as people who play with me will attest). Additionally, if you're me, you probably wish that you had more character-based decisions to make in combat. In the current phase of my roleplaying career I look at combat as a place to make the action cool, not as a place to do interesting character decisions or create interesting changes in my characters. But by forcing hard decisions on the players in a combat, I think it is possible to put the characterization back in the game, even after the thugs start their work.

Basically how it works is this: say I've got a character who is just a normal, everyday fighter. For some reason they have gotten into a shouting match with the local village tough, and a fight has broken out. A standard intro could be something like: "He pulls out his sword, threatening you." or even, with more stunting, something like "His metal-laced scars glinting in the twilight, he begins a chant that draws forth a magical blade from his heart, blackened by his own evil. He begs you to lay your life down on his blade". Both of those are fine, if all you want is a fight. But what could be more interesting? Perhaps something like, "Without a second's thought he lunges for a watching lady, his fingers dig into her arm drawing blood. You see an opening, but the woman will probably be hurt by him as you thrust home, what are you doing?" Or perhaps he has captured something of value to the players and they must risk breaking it. Either way, the purpose is clear: by making a choice you reveal something about your character. Does she care only for justice, thrusting her sword deep into the ruffian's belly? Does she try to bargain for the woman's life? Does she purposefully run the woman through in order to complete her mission? I believe these are much more interesting questions to answer than just how you attack the bad guy, no matter how great a stunt you can make.

In the game I wrote about yesterday, "Both Alike in Dignity" the second half of the adventure consists of a couple of combats, with a couple of moments of rest to allow the players to do something I didn't think of. In the most recent iteration of the game, I used this style of combat quite a bit. Now in my particular setup I didn't have to work to hard to make the players make choices, since their "one true love" was right there with them. Do you gain an advantage over Benedict or protect your lover? Do you save the king of Amber or prevent a single scratch from befalling your companion's body. The best choice I thought up all night was "do you risk your unborn child or allow your lover to be stabbed". But even when the choice was easy to make, I felt it allowed the characterization to continue to flow. I really felt like we discovered stuff about the players during the second half that we hadn't in the first, even though the first was pretty much geared solely towards characterization, and discovery.

I was super pleased with how well this worked and the engagement I think I saw in the players, and I know that the next campaign or adventure I run I will be trying this technique again (perhaps my players will jump in on the comments and tell us otherwise, but I felt it worked well).

Tomorrow some thoughts on stunting and characterization or perhaps comments on player-assisted engagement!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Fiascos, Fights, and Ill-advised sex: Player Scene Generation as Player Buy-in

A couple of years ago on the drive back from the incomparable Ambercon NW, Mike and I had a discussion about a game I could possibly run the next year. That game was based on a previous game by mike and focused around the creation of true meaningful relationships created by the players. The idea way that to start off the game we would have the players break off into explicit couples and come up with scenes they wanted to play through between each other. These scenes had prompts. For the ACNW game they were: 1. A scene where you fight each other and it comes to blows, 2. A scene where you defend the other to a family member, and 3. a scene that results in ill-advised sex.

I ended up running this game both for a Sunday session last summer and for ACNW. Both of these games went very well, but I never got to the final part of the adventure. After the scenes were played out, the couples were supposed to face a great challenge, and hopefully overcome it as a couple. In both previous runs, I was unable to get the players to the conclusion in time. (In the sunday session we didn't have enough time to explain Amber to a new player and also get through everything, in the ACNW game, my players didn't seem interested in that part of the adventure, so I abandoned it). So, for the retreat I decided to run "Both Alike in Dignity" once again.

For the retreat version of this game I changed the scenes (since one person had already played with these scenes), and Keith and I were able to come up with: 1. A scene where you convince the other to love you despite their hatred, 2. A scene where someone dies, 3. A scene that results in ill-advised sex. We kept ill-advised sex because the relationship doesn't feel solid until you have it, in my opinion. These scenes worked great and the two couples (Mike and Evelyn, Jesse and Carl) I think got some really excellent roleplaying done in their scenes. Best of all this time I was able to get everyone to the conclusion!

This game has worked really well everytime I've run it. It was certainly the best GM'ing I did at the retreat last week, and it was the best Ambercon game I've run as well. In thinking about this I figure that one of the big reasons for this is that I'm asking for direct player involvement from moment one in creating these relationships. I think of how many times I have tried to get a love interest going in a game (normally with an NPC), and it normally takes one of two forms: 1. the player ignores my hints, and nothing happens 2. the player desperately latches on to the hints, and it feels awkward and unfinished. Maybe all of that is me, but I think the reason these relationships work is that the players are responsible for making it happen.

Player Scenes as a method of generating buy-in for adventure ideas I think might be really cool. I have another idea for generating intense relationships in a family that I think might be very cool, and that I want to try at some point. I also think this shares a lot with the "stunt your failure" concept that Nikita introduced to our stunting group. Basically Nikita was the first GM to say "this is too hard, you cannot succeed, please stunt your failure to kill the dragon". While a little wierd the first time (since people are used to just succeeding all the time in persona), it has really grown on us all. It is a great GM tool (to be used sparingly, of course), but it really gets the players' buy-in and lets them feel cool while still failing (and lets them fail on their own terms). In much the same way, I feel that these relationship building scenes generate player buy-in and involvement, and are definitely a valuable tool I am adding to my GM toolbox.

Tomorrow I'm going to try to write about the cool new GM fighting technique I tried out at the retreat that Mike came up with for his Georgia Amber crew.

Monday, March 29, 2010


In case you missed it, I'm on twitter now, and I've been using it for a while (couple of months). I think its pretty cool! Check me out!

Roleplaying Retreat II: The Re-retreatening

So I just got back from the second roleplaying retreat, and I have to say I think it was a success! I really enjoyed playing with a bunch of my friends, and making a few new ones to boot! Everyone was a very skilled roleplayer with a lot to bring to both the gaming table and the discussions, and basically: a smashing success. In an effort to organize and record my thoughts, I'm hoping to do a couple of blog posts on some of the things we discussed, some of the problems we found, and some of the games we played. So, hopefully (assuming I'm not a total blog writing loser like normal) this will be the first of 2 or 3 posts.

One of the most interesting things we did was a session on improv exercises. Impro for Storytellers is, in my opinion, a great resource for anyone looking to work on characterization and plot techniques in a roleplaying game. It is my belief that almost all of the stuff that goes into making a great improv session can be applied to roleplaying sessions. I know that since my introduction to this book I have come a long way in terms of blocking, tilts, and predicting the desires of players through their actions.

For the retreat we first tried to do a couple of the blocking exercises. For instance, we played the game where you only stayed in until you blocked something. No one stayed in very long (though we did eventually get into the swing of things). Another exercise we tried was the butler, where you only block (one person suggests things to do and you have to agree with them incharacter but block them, like "Yes, going outside would be great, but I'm afraid its raining sir). I thought these went pretty well, though since I had forgotten the book we couldn't do a lot of exercises, only the ones that Mike and I remembered. But that gave us time to come up with roleplaying exercises!

Ever since Mike found the improv book above and thought it could apply to roleplaying he and I have been tossing around ideas for small exercises, like the ones suggested in the book. In general they are short and sharp, meaning they don't take long to do and they focus very tightly on a specific skill. We finally got to try one that we made up on the spot after we ran out of "normal" improv exercises. I'll call this exercise "GM Plot Workshop".

So we had 5 people working on this exercise (Mike, Carl, Evelyn, Brittany, and myself). One person would be the player, and one the GM. The other three would each think of one of Setting, Character, Story Goal (in that order). Then, the player would in a very out of character way, say what the player's plan for achieving or approaching the story goal was. The GM would then say what they would do. One example was with me as the GM, and Mike as the player. Setting: Post-apocolyptic world where humans were forced underground to a Zion-like city. Character: a young scientist. Story Goal: Make the surface safe for humans. Mike said something like "I lead an expedition to the serface to figure out why we can't live up there anymore". I responded with "After arriving on the surface your scientist team finds that there are microbes in every plant and animal that take over their minds, and that these are fatal to humans". After doing this, we would then have commentary from everyone. For instance, in our example one piece of feedback was that the character should have discovered the microbes not just the team he is a part of. Also alternate plot suggestions like "Wouldn't it be cool if they had to fight to the surface or the microbes were caused by his great-grandfather". The plan and response would take 2-4 mins, and the discussion anywhere from 5-10mins. Then repeat. We did 3 of these per GM/player pair. This was really great in helping people see problems with their plots "You're right it would be cooler if there was a rival band they had to challenge to a rock-off" to player anticipation: "Oh, I see that I guided the player down a path they weren't excited about, which was indicated by this action". Plus, for the more experienced GMs it was easy to add in difficulty-increasing elements like "I'm a new player and I don't know how to communicate my story goals other than through character actions, and I get frustrated easily" (which is what mike played for me). Everyone agreed it was very useful and awesome to be able to do basically entire sessions in about 10 mins and get immediate feedback with different ideas and suggestions.

In this vein I have thought of a few more exercises that would be cool to try some time:

  • GM player prediction - same setup as above, but have the GM try to guess the hidden story goal only through in character interactions through NPCs
  • Player assisted engagement - This time there are 3 players, and 2 of them have to work in character to engage the 3rd one, who is disengaged and not having fun
  • Hooking players - each person thinks of a character and setting, GM suggests plot hooks for each.

In all of these cases you would engage in a round of discussion after each round of play. This is the most important part as figuring out what should've or could've happened differently or better is many times something only other people can see (We did the discussion for every game we played at the retreat, not just the exercises, which really brought a new level of awesomeness).

Let me know if you try out any of these ideas. I think I will if I ever find some people willing enough again! I'll try to get another post on the retreat out sometime this week.