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!