Preparing for chaos

12 January, 2008 at 1:19 pm (rpg theory) (, , )

What follows is three broad ways of preparing for play. They are basically refined and slightly more narrow versions of a post I made before this blog at Theory decides. The versions written here have slightly different naming schema and extensively use Montola’s theory.

Disclaimer: I find scripted play generally distasteful, pointless or alien. That might influence something.

Sandbox play

When game master and the group builds a setting and the players characters (with varying amounts of input from players and GM on the different aspects) and then the characters are placed in the setting, do stuff, and the setting responds, game is sandbox play. A setting generated by improvisation in play based on “what would really be there” can also be sandbox play.

In terms of the model discussed, a sandbox has accidental attractors in that a given group of characters might or might not care about them. Maybe the want to slay the slumbering dragon, maybe awaken it, maybe take its stuff, maybe they ignore it completely. There are things happening in the setting, but they go on independently of the player characters, who are free to go and do as they will.

Sandbox play is hit-and-miss: If the characters don’t have agendas of their own or happen to bump into something that engages the players, the gaming will be dull. There usually is a slow start where players get used to their characters and the setting and have little time to start doing something interesting. On the other hand, given characters with strong principles and goals, sandbox play can create wonderful organic stories and experiences. If characters are of the sort who always get offended by something or always are scheming to the over the world, at least something will happen.

There is a strong starting cost, or need to be good at impro, to run a sandbox game well.

Scripted play

There are strong attractors the player characters are expected to follow. The expection may be tacit (that is what roleplaying is) or explicit. It may be part of the game rules (Rune). There usually is a setting where things that don’t directly touch the player characters happens, but they are on the background. Often there is a particular story that is being told. It may have been designed by all participants (the crazy Swedes are up to no good with that kind of stuff, I’m certain) or by the GM in solitude. There certainly are other methods.

Strong attractors are the key here. If all the player characters are united in purpose (save the world), share similar values (alignment and interpretation of it) and have well-defined solution to most problems (fighting), the game should go along just fine. GM knows what kind of hooks and rewards to use, players know what they are supposed to do. GM can plan excellent events while the players have fun dealing with those.

The great strength of scripted play is that preparation is both useful and efficient. What is prepared is often also used. If not, it can be recycled to some later situation. The great flaw is the tendency to stick with what one has prepared. Some games make this near mandatory. The myth of impro being somehow difficult (more difficult than using prepared material, at least) is a result of relying on preparation. Railroading happens when GM creates more and more attractors that actually lead to the same place when players diverge.

Scripted game (as in a series of sessions) is built so that attractors draw the PCs together. Avoiding bifurcation points is important. An alternative is to place them so that one has time to prepare, whichever attractor is followed after the brief chaos.

Volatile play

Players create characters. Game master builds or tweaks everything else so that characters are engaged, but the direction they move to is unknown. Essentially, volatile play means that GM constructs bifurcation points the players will bump into. The Forge people call a specific sort of bifurcation point a bang. More generally, there are two sorts (not dichotomous) of volatile situations that can be prepared: Those which rely on player making a decision and those which rely on dice making a decision. Generally speaking, the first are more enjoyable, at least in my opinion. Combinations, such as the player deciding which dice get to make the decision, are possibly. See for example many combat systems.

There is room for using attractors, too. They should be used to keep the player characters interacting and the game as a whole coherent. Otherwise all the characters might end up doing their own thing separate from the other PCs, which is generally not as fun as players interacting. It is also more work for the game master.

Good rules are things that don’t require much preparation, or at least much preparation for specific occasions. Improvisation is practically necessary technique, so rules that make it possible or easier are always nice. Rules which make resolution unexpected but not overtly random are another good tool: Stuff like action points that give a significant bonus to rolls, for example, allow success at unexpected situations that the player finds important.

Problems include the aforementioned bubble play, where PCs don’t significantly interact, and inconsistencies. When much detail is generated on fly to drive PCs towards a given bifurcation point, there is significant risk of an inconsistency or three appearing. Usually they don’t matter because they are not noticed. Sometimes things do go messy.

And the lesson is…

Play the way you do, but know that there are alternatives which can look totally alien. Experimentation is a good thing; some techniques transfer well between gaming styles.

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Chaos in roleplaying

11 January, 2008 at 8:31 pm (rpg theory) (, , , )

I have woefully neglected mentioning and linking to Markus Montola’s chaos model of roleplaying. The way I actually use the model, which is somewhat different from what Montola has written, is as follows. Ignore if you actually know something about chaos or are math-phobic. For the record, I don’t anything about chaos.

Chaotic system is one which has a given starting state and then changes from that recursively, where each iteration can be determined but predicting the end result of multiple iterations becomes increasingly difficult due to the interaction of multiple factors all part of the system. Technically, there should no random factors involved, but I don’t think they actually chang the model at all, assuming that the possible effects of randomness are possible due of the state that is used as base for current iteration and might not be possible, or at least not as likely, given some other state of the system. Even with no randomness, there must be some state that might happen as the result of given iteration that could not be the result of some other starting situation.

I think the model can be applied to roleplaying on two levels: The diegetic level, which is a fancy way of saying the level of fiction , where a every situation is a different end and beginning of a new iteration, or the social level where the players actually function and play happens. It could be argued that only the social level is important, but at least I also find it interesting to investigate how the diegetic situation changes and which factors change it to specific directions. There would be no roleplaying without the fiction.

Attractor is a certain path (an ordered list) of situations. The social situation or gameplay tends towards attractors. On social level, there being a rules expert in a given group is an attractor. It is likely that someone will take on that particular group, and if only a single session is observed, it is likely that there is only one such person. On diegetic level, the player characters fighting the undead hordes could be an attractor, given suitable adventure and PCs.

Bifurcation point is a situation where the game (there doubtless are social equivalents, but I haven’t thought about them as much and can’t come up with a suitable example) can take at least two directions; that is, one attractor is chosen, others disregarded. For example, in a totally original plot twist the GM decided that the big bad evil guy (BBEG) is one PC’s father, who asks the relevant PC to join the dark side and rule the world with him. This is very much a bifurcation point, because the PC and the BBEG might start working together towards world domination after a family reunion or the PC and the father might fight and there might be much angst. Either could happen. Other factors, like group mentality (everyone must be a good guy) or character portrayal (BBEG is very evil and nasty and more-or-less literally drips darkness and goo) can affect the situation, or even not make it a bifurcation point at all by making the response a given.

The next post outlines three playing styles, applies the terminology introduced in this post and provides more examples as a side effect.

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