Not saving NPC dignity

18 September, 2011 at 9:48 pm (actual play, Amber, game mastering) (, , , , , )

So, we were playing Amber. There is this one NPC, lady A!Gyre of the house Meria, that holds a lot of very limited power and has been using it once or twice. She is also hidden in a place that is very hard to reach, even for Amberites.  And nobody knew she was there.

One of the player characters got in the contact with agyre. The form of contact was conversation through an old TV display, barely capable of showing colours. The picture was blurry. And on the other side there is this woman-like entity sitting on a far too tall black throne. She has a black featureless mask covering her face, and is made of stone, is the colour of stone, or is just covered with dust.

Some negotiation about who built this certain trap, and a’Gyre demands something in exchange for the information. Simeon, the character who had in his life played the part of Bond-like secret agent, offers a hot night (as reads in the session log – the exact phrase I can’t recall).

A_Gyr had not moved from her seat in ages, so the offer was surprising. She was a fairly unknown chaos entity, so it was surprising to me, the GM.

The two did end up in bed, but we not comfortable with playing through that. I and the player in question did play it out a bit – not the physical stuff, but more the emotional side and building trust and psychical meddling that happened.

Saying yes

My typical preparation for the Amber game is as follows: I have a list of stats for the NPCs, I know what many of them are up to, I have a relationship map which illustrates some of that. Further, I have the next scene for each character somewhat prepared, based on what their plans were at the end of the last session. I may also have a random scene or a few ready, for when the circumstances make it possible (if some NPC has prepared it) or when a good opportunity arises.

I also know, with varying levels of details, what has happened in the past. I also know something about how different powers and items of power function, but exploring this is a significant part of play, so much of it is unknown to me.

I knew a little about aGyre’s motivations, but nothing about personality. Would she accept Simeon’s offer? Could have gone either way, so I left it open for a bit, but than later said yes. In very certain terms – Simeon was at her court, such as it was, full of monsters and entities of unknown powers and intentions.

Status quo?

In Apocalypse world, one of the principles is to look at everything through crosshairs. Consider killing whoever your attention lands on, and do not try to maintain the dignity of NPCs. This does not translate to Amber as such as especially the elder Amberites demand some extra consideration, but in the situation – why not? I don’t have a precious plot to save, so why try to maintain status quo, and not let an adventurous Amberite get it on with a lady of a Chaosite house?

This is something for me to think about, and for something for other game masters to also consider, supposing they are playing a game where big and powerful NPCs roam the lands. Should there be a status quo that you strive to maintain? Why not let the player characters kill Elminster (or maybe fuck Elminster) – the consequences will create enough material to run the game for next sequence of sessions, and the players will be happy. Maybe I’ll look at the elder Amberites through crosshairs – blood curses expected.

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The nature of scheming

17 February, 2008 at 1:33 pm (Burning vikings, Burning Wheel) (, )

Another short session. Also, Thalin’s schedules change which changes our gaming schedule into an unreliable, yet hopefully surviving, one. Regular gaming is important and I am not happy with the change. This’ll be brief report. We played on Saturday, too, though there is likely to be a break until the next game happens.

Actual play

Half a day in the fictional timeframe. Artha flowed a bit slower this session. I seem to need some time to get into the zone properly and can notice the effects in play. Not a good thing, but won’t go away without practice.

Scene 1

Mori and Halvard leave Nässla’s hut. Mori goes on to manufacture a pretty nasty poison (causes a B10 wound, which kills weak characters and even the strong will be utterly unable to succeed at anything for a long time and will need help to survive without permanent injury; giant would actually notice it), while Halvard goes to the village. The stakes for Mori’s roll were that failure indicates that the poison is very easy to notice, makes the cause of death obvious, or some such. The poisonousness was not even a question. The poison’s actual effect, in addition to fatal wounding when the target sleeps, is to seemingly age the target. Maybe actually, if the target happens to survive. The herbs for this were gathered a some time ago and the roll was pretty successful, giving a bonus die to this roll. Some artha was also used.

On his way back to the village, Halvard is kinda-sorta-almost ambushed. One arrow from the woods, and that one is not particularly dangerous. I intended it as a warning, but wgaztari interpreted it as an attack. Leaves some options open for me. Halvard took the arrow, intending to later investigate the matter.

Scene 2

Halvard in the village. He tricks Gilla (Brunhildrsdottir) to come with him, which takes a bit of effort (a good roll or two). She gets pretty scared of the magpies, claiming that they are not natural. wgaztari actually succeeds at a pretty hard orienteering test (unskilled) and manages to find the way to the witch’s hut without any help from the magpies, which would have a forced a new steel test on Gilla and had all sorts of potential amusing consequences.

Once inside with Gilla and Nässla, I get to use one of my favourite GM tricks: Assign players whose characters are not there to play the NPCs. I play Nässla, let kysm play Gilla and Thalin gets to play one of the birds (the other is not present). Gilla is persuaded to stay with the witch due to it being good for the village and other reasons. Nettle gives Halvard what was bargained for: Vague direction, guidelines to go to a mountain with lots of caverns. There is a former troll king there with a sword that will be able to slay the giant. Halvard leaves.

Scene 3

Brunhildr and her retinue are looking the the ambush position. They see the giant walking towards them and promptly hide. Brunhildr sends the competent tracker/hunter (named Varg) to track the giant’s tracks, in order to find out where it came from, with orders to come back at night if the trip would be too long. Brunhildr further wants to send one of her men to follow the giant towards the village; this is a circles roll to find someone capable of following the giant. Success: Find someone who can do it and not get caught; failure: find someone who should be able to do it but is not quite good enough and does get caught (is what I tell to ksym). Successful the roll is. The others get as comfortable as they can without fires (which Nifur could notice).

Brunhildr is feeling somewhat sick (due to Mori’s herbs) .

Scene 4

Mori goes talks with the giant. Some information about giant-slaying swords is shared, as well as the body having been a fake. Dice get rolled, just in the case of the soldier following Nifur identified Mori. A tense roll, but Mori remains unidentified. Mori first goes to the village (no Halvard or Gilla there) and then towards Nässla’s house.

Mori encounters Halvard, there is some paranoia from Halvard’s side, who threatens Mori with a spear. Thalin rolls steel, fails, Mori runs screaming through the dark woods. This is a chase situation; Halvard is eventually victorious with some artha burned. There is an interrogation; Mori has falsehood, Halvard no interrogation skill, which leads to a quick defeat on Halvard’s side. Mori must compromise a tiny bit (as opposed to spilling his dealings with the giant); Halvard trusts him, for now. The compromise was that Mori told Halvard that the giant wants to eat Thorvald’s heart to gain the strength Thorvald gained from eating the heart of Nifur’s father. After this bit of exposition, the two return to village.

Scene 5

Leif and Halvard interact in very brotherly manner, with Leif implying that Halvard raped Gilla. There is some further talk, too.

Brunhildr hears of the traitor (identity unknown), tells everyone to keep quiet, fails the roll that would have made it so, implying that at the next opportunity someone will tell about the existence of the traitor and probably more, sends a messenger to get Halvard, some loyal men and specifically no Mori. Messenger finds the Halvard, makes his request, which which Halvard agrees to. He picks some men, Mori comes with him, messenger questions, is denied.

The man who tracked the giant returns and can approximately tell where the giant might be, but didn’t get that far. It can move pretty fast over long distances. This was not a roll, but possibly should have been. I just find it boring to roll dice when player characters are not the target and found no way to translate this test to a test for any PC.

Scene 6

At Brunhildr’s campsite everyone meets, happy as ever. Mori is inconspicuous enough to not get Brunhildr’s attention and goes spreading rumours among the men, mostly about Halvard having sold Brunhildr’s daughter to a witch. Mori fails in being discreet enough so that people would not remember who originally spread the rumours.

Halvard admits to having sent Gilla help an old man and tells what he knows about the sword. There is some negotiation about who would go about getting it, with Brunhildr not being very well and all. I could have asked for duel of wits, but decided that this is pretty much a foregone conclusion and thought the dialogue as mostly elaboration.

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As the witch wills

12 February, 2008 at 10:12 pm (Burning vikings, Burning Wheel) (, , , )

This session was shorter than the previous ones due to wgaztari’s university stuff.


Game starts as everyone gets up, with a bit of retconning due to Mori first visiting Nässla and only then going to sleep.

I neglect to mention several rolls and both gains and expenditures of artha. They are a legion; artha is flowing as it should, dice get rolled often enough for my tastes. Thalin wants more. Maybe so.

Scene 1

Brunhildr and Halvard wake up. Brunhildr goes bathing in a nearby stream. I resist the urge to do the classical scene at this point, which might have been a mistake. I may get another opportunity. Anyway. After getting back she goes to get some food. ksym (plays Brunhildr) asks where Leif is. Of course he ust came in and is taking food at the same time as ksym is. Brunhildr very accidentally knocks his food to the floor (ksym gets fate artha for playing thug and moving the story forward). Leif is outraged. One of his soldiers challenges Brunhildr to a duel (this happy event involves  Brunhildr’s instinct to punch anyone who touches her without warning; she misses, having no brawling and soldier having some; this involved a roll). The soldier is pretty good at what he does: Relevant numbers are solid (black) fours, including stats and weapon skill. Not quite in league with Brunhildr, but still potentially deadly.

The duel was fought along more-or-less historically accurate model. I assume the “less”. A cloak was set on the ground. The one to first step off it, drop blood on it, be disarmed or dead loses the duel. In this particular case, this allowed using the rather elaborate Burning Wheel Fight! rules and disregard positioning, as both combatants preferred their weapons. I asked ksym if he wanted the long form combat; he did, though struggled a bit with it. When dueling, ksym quickly noticed how damn important armour is for survival and how frustrating it is to use a sword against an armoured opponent (the opponent used an axe and had lighter armour than Brunhildr). I once allowed ksym to probably save his character by expending a persona artha; this was a minor breach of the rules, I would handle it in a different way if the situation came back again. After a number of attacks clinging of armours and everyone noticing just how chaotic the combat system really is, Brunhildr managed a successful disarm. The opponent rolls steel due to losing a duel to mere woman and fails it. He stands and drools. Some witty banter and one attack on head that is handled by armour, Brunhildr gets a choice: She can slay the opponent then and there. It is clear that she did after having won. It breaks no rules but certainly will give her a fierce reputation. Result: Off with the head. Ksym gets fate and persona artha (IIRC, at least fate). A lot was used in the duel, too, so net effect on artha was probably mildly negative. This is one of the good gaming moments and I got to give ksym artha as a recognition.

Scene 2

Before the fight breaks out two important things happen. First: Halvard and Leif bet on the winner. Leif loses, gives Halvard a loan (one PC actually has a resources exponent to use again). Mori returns to the hall (catching the attention of two magpies due to failing a foraging roll; lame consequences), succeeds at inconspicuous (nobody pays significant attention to him). He flirts with Gilla and poisons the gobletful of mead (or something) that the winner of the duel is to drink. Nothing lethal, just something that will cause a mild fever for some days. ksym first intends to not drink it, but decides to go with it after I bribe him with a point of fate artha (slight breach of the rules, but stealing an idea from FATE/SotC is generally not a bad idea; worked fine this time).

This is an opposed test: Poisons versus health. Mori’s poisoning is successful with two successes over Brunhildr’s health test. I read this as giving -2D on everything for one day and -1D on the second. Both players agree. ksym burns a point of fate artha to open-end the one six rolled and reduces the effects of the disease to -1D for the next day due to mild fever. Both players are happy.

Pretty eventful morning, I must say. When Brunhildr gets back and talks to her daughter, it becomes clear (dice are rolled to find this out) that Mori was there and talked to her (about her seeing spirit or spirits, among other things). The poisoning is not discovered. All players know, of course. It’s fun.

Scene 3

Next in order: Gathering information. Halvard and Brunhildr have a cunning idea of setting up a trap for Nifur the giant. It involves finding a suitable place for ambush, which involves finding someone who knows the local area very well. This is a circles roll. Halvard gets Leif to help as it is for common good. Brunhildr also asks around. Helping dice are a powerful thing; success. Failure would have meant that the hunter who knows the area like his backyard just tragically lost his brother by Brunhildr’s arm. Failures complicate, not block. Too bad the roll was successful.

Halvard asks around for someone who knows about giants and gets directed to a witch who lives in a nearby spruce swamp with a nasty reputation. That’s Nässla. He, too, gets two magpies following him. Gets fate artha for throwing one with a rock; misses, though Nettle doesn’t really appreciate it, which probably did not show enough. Mori found out the magpies serve or report to Nässla.

Scene 4

Halvard knocks on Nässla’s door. Mori opens it. Situation is somewhat interesting. There is some subtle unhospitability on Mori’s part and lots of negotiating with the witch. Halvard wants to know about the giant; Nettle promises to tell where and how he can obtain a weapon suitable for slaying it, for a price. Namely; to bring Gilla there and make sure she remains there. This after Halvard didn’t want to give Nässla his strength.

A note on OOC talk: I explicitly asked players if they want a magical weapon in the game; wgaztari wasn’t particularly keen on magic in general, but okayd the sword, assuming it is not very flashy. Well, I can guarantee there will be no threat of that. Our senses of aesthetics seem to be quite compatible. Good.

Halvard further asks if Nokkonen knows about his father’s death. Answer is flat-out yes. Price: Halvard’s strength. Nässla does accept the strength of someone else, too (Leif is the most likely target right now). Halvard leaves, Nässla orders Mori to accompany him (and make sure Gilla really gets there).

Meanwhile: Brunhildr and some men start seeking a suitable place for ambush.

Notes and some minor spoilers

There is likely to be some retconning, namely: Did ksym order his men to keep Mori away from Gilla? Did she leave her armour to be repaired or take it with her?

There is a chance that Leif’s men will ambush Halvard on his way back. It would kind of fit, but would,on the other hand, be dramatically a bit unsuitable when thinking about the possibility that Leif is taken to Nässla and his men attack after that, which I would prefer. I have not decided yet. Time’s running.

There is a significant chance that Brunhildr and the others meet a giant. The giant. This for two reasons: First, if they fail a suitable roll, I can use Nifur as a consequence; second, other Brunhildr will be less active for significant time (one and a half sessions) and that is not good.

Gilla will not be too willing to meet the witch; if nothing else complicates the matters, she will see some aura on the magpies. I assume she will be taken to Nässla regardless.

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It’s all about consequences

8 January, 2008 at 6:07 pm (rpg theory) (, , )

Previously I posted on the importance of choices to my roleplaying. That is not the whole truth, as opusinsania pointed out. The other half of the equation is consequences, and both of them require context (situation).

Many traditional sanbox-style games start with some amount of guesswork on the GM’s side: The GM throws different stuff at the players justto see how their characters react in common situations. What does the character do when insulted, yelled at, attacked, blackmailed, … This sort of play can be rewarding or at least interesting.

Sometimes after a session or two, sometimes after few scenes of play, the consequences of those and new decisions start manifesting. This is the big consequences that change or determine the direction of the game.  Someone surrendered and wasn’t killed for that reason? Maybe that someone becomes a loyal companion, or a traitor, or a coward. Or maybe the someone simply remains a someone and never really takes on a larger role. The first three are big consequences.

Judgement comes after the consequences. Was the decision correct, which is most effectively asked by repeating the situation. The first prisoner of war turned a traitor. Will the next surrendering opponent still be spared? Even if it is the same person? Even if it is a demon, widely known as utterly untrustworthy and malicious?

The GM (and other players) generally should not fixate on single issue and hit the character continuously with it. That would usually be boring. The qualifiers are for those indie games whose point is laser-sharp focus on an issue or few (which is not nearly all indie games). Those aside, guidance on  what issues should get the focus by being reused comes from communication between relevant people. This can be explicit or rely on judging what other people enjoy from their reactions, or use character sheets as a guide (some with the key of unrequited love when playing the Shadow of Yesterday is waving a big flag at the issue that should get repeated; someone with tons of investigation skills may either want to investigate a lot or get all investigation quickly over and move to the other parts of the game), or employ player questinnaries, or carefully consider the open threads in a character background. Players should be active in communicating their desires an, when plausible, hitting the favoured material of other players.

To me, consequences are the fuel that keeps longer games burning. Player choice is what sets the direction the game takes. Choices are what determines the consequences. Rules and the GM enforce the consequences, which can be used to justify the existence of both.

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Burning some vikings

5 January, 2008 at 11:34 am (Burning vikings, game mastering, roleplaying) (, , , , )

So, I’m starting a Burning Wheel game soon enough. There shall be vikings (without the horned helmets) present. And a giant.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Principle: Character death

28 December, 2007 at 7:27 pm (game mastering) (, , , )

Player character death is usually a bad thing. That’s why in story- or character-driven games I run the following rule is in effect: Player characters will not die unless the player explicitly risks the character’s life.

By character death I mean any event that makes a character unplayable for extended period of time (at least two sessions) and is not easily reversible.

Character death is often harmful to the game, because

  • Character generation takes time, especially in heavier systems.
  • It often stops the game, either permanently or temporarily.
  • Players don’t like losing precious characters.
  • GM probably had hooks, plot opportunities, bangs, and so forth planned for that character. They all need reworking or become totally useless.

Random character death is even worse. In addition to the above, it is usually anticlimatic.

My solution: Justification

When players must risk the characters specifically for there to be a chance of PC death, they are never (by definition) random. In many situations there won’t be a crushing anticlimax (maybe a mild one). And the player can only blame themselves for the loss.

My solution: Implementation

So, how do players risk their characters and why would they ever do it? Usually the risk is clearly defined; for example, in most of my games combat is a rare and serious affair, and hence entering it always means a risk of PC death. Escalating some conflict may mean it: The noble told you to be gone and stop bothering her daughter. Then he had you thrown out of the ball and declared an outlaw. If you still persist and try to sneak to meet her, failure means the guards will slay you first and not ask any questions after that. If you negotiate well, they might let you meet the noble, and if you flatter well, you might get away with your life. Fail and you will be executed. I think this avoids the problem of random death: The death, if it happens, is clearly significant because it shows that the character really cares for the noble’s daughter and is willing to risk death in the pursuit. Also: the rule of three may or may not be involved in making this seem not arbitrary. Something worth thinking about.

The (slightly more) tricky part is in making the game interesting with reduced chances of PC death. Something must still be threatened and the PCs must still be capable of doing something for it. Personally I have discovered two methods of makings PCs and players care about stuff. First is in asking the player what the character cares deeply about (the rules of the game may or may not help in this; if they do, they are called flags; another fine opportunity to shill the Burning Wheel which has such a feature). Loves, hates, is dutybound to, is tied to with ties of blood. Second is forcing such a relation, either out-of-game (make characters who hate this bastard) which can seem too forced, or through the game (play NPC so as to inspire fear, love, friendship, loyalty,…), which is far from reliable and can misfire.

Threatening the stuff that is important to the PC and the player can make some players turtle. Hence it is important to make it clear that it makes the game better and that you won’t arbitrarily destroy such things without the PC having a chance to avert the destruction (but maybe sacrificing something else in the process, like her life) or also give equal opportunities to gain ore good stuff (which can later be threatened). This is all good stuff for plain old dilemmas. A shadowy figure offers you great power and wealth and magical knowledge if you betray your friend. Allows the character to get something for losing something else. Few players will start turtling if they get to make relevant decisions.

My solution: Additional benefits

I won’t have to fudge rolls to prevent pointless character death. Players who actually are okay with their chars biting the dust at dramatic moments get to do that, which makes martyrism possible. Players get more control of the game. From my point of view, everyone wins.

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Good rules help to improvise

13 December, 2007 at 12:32 pm (game design, game mastering) (, , )

When writing my previous post, I realised one important component of good rules: They actively help me in improvising content by taking the burden of decision-making away from the GM.

Good example is abstract wealth systems (Burning Wheel and d20 modern have one, for example). The question “Can the NPC afford this and that?” can be quickly solved with a simple die roll or checking the wealth levels involved. PCs wanting to buy a certain item just roll wealth. with adjustments for obscure or specialised items. And failure means that I have the perfect excuse to add some fun complication, like the chars getting into a hostage scene or catching the attention of authorities/pickpockets or buying unreliable equipment. An invaluable feature.

Abstract contact systems work pretty much exactly the like: Roll to find whoever you are seeking, with factors such as character background and social station affecting the roll. Failure means that you get the attention of someone or that the person you find happens to hate your guts (called enmity clause in Burning Wheel). Again, great way to introduce new complications and conflicts to play and the players do part of the NPC design work (asking them to name the NPCs thus found may be useful trick, too).

Random encounters are kinda similar. A good random encounter table can be used when characters fail a roll in the wilderness. Maybe they are tracking the bugbear that slaughtered some villagers and fail. It’d be no fun for them simply to not find anything, so instead they trigger a random encounter (maybe the vily bugbear tricked them into territory dominated by whatever beasties they encounter, or maybe it is pure bad luck).

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Getting out of the adventure (with no rails)

12 December, 2007 at 9:28 pm (game mastering) (, , )

Jonathan Drain crawled out of the dungeon (an excellent article one ought to read). I’m going a bit further explain some ways of gaming that don’t fit his definition of adventure, which is: any series of exciting, heroic events involving a group of heroes who set out with a purpose. As previously, this shall happen without the rails.

First, it should be noted that many gamers are in for the co-operation, excitement and eventual triumph implied by an adventure. That’s fine. Go play, have fun. Maybe there is something useful for you in this post, maybe not.

So, how to get off the rails and the adventure at the same time? First way is to break the party. Not merely split it, but to stop assuming it at all. The problem is in keeping all players engaged regardless. Sending them out of room or using notes are, obviously, very bad ideas. So one must trust the players; trust that they will not abuse the metagame information, but either ignore it or use it well. The simplest way of keeping all players engaged is cutting between their characters rabidly. First ask what everyone is doing, then play every situation a bit at a time, jump to next, play a bit of it, and so forth. A good alternative is to recruit players to play NPCs when their characters are not present, assuming the players are willing. It is also beneficial to have the player characters interact with each other as much as possible, because it inherently involves more than one player and gives more time to think, or to play the scenes of other players, whichever suits the situation and the group.

Three or four independent agents will make planning kinda difficult. So, the key is to define a number of NPC, their motivations, and abilities (including the people, money and influence they have at their disposal), after which playing them is just like playing a PC, but at a less accurate level.

Another way to get out of the adventure is to break the heroism. Maybe the characters or their achievements are not heroic. “Realistic” drama can be compelling, as long as everyone is interested in it. Or playing “evil” characters. Or other fiction that can be taken as nonheroic. To not start a semantic argument about heroism I will leave it undefined (the easy solution, I hope). Key in making nonheroic games interesting is in giving the player character power to influence something relevant. Saving the world from Cthulhu may be out of question, but saving your relative may be possible. Or trying it may be possible. Real choices are what makes all gaming worth it (in my not-very-humble opinion). Extra care must be taken to provide low-power characters with meaningful choices. Ditto for evil ones; moral dilemmas don’t work quite as well on them.

Third way to break out of adventure is to leave the purpose. I do not advocate purposeless play (it is boring), but play where the characters don’t have clear quests or such can work. One method of accomplishing it is to build a relationship map of characters tightly involved with each other and the PCs, but where people want conflicting things from the PCs. They can’t please everyone, which creates conflict, but can alter the situation to any way they will. Adding some external pressure to the situation usually manages to create a good game. The NPCs should be played according to their motivations and capabilities, as before.

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To not railroad

7 December, 2007 at 8:51 pm (game mastering) (, , )

njharman asked how to avoid railroading. For the purpose of this post, I assume reader does not want to railroad and has a good reason for it, such as not enjoying railroading or wanting to try new things. (Bad reason would be because some internet person told that railroading is inherently evil.) Any examples will be drawn from D&D because njharman used DM as a phrase, which kinda implies D&D or similar. I further a prep-heavy game (that is, not Wushu or similar).

Railroading can be avoided, and can happen, on several levels. The easiest and lest painful change is to change the macro level. The simplest method is to always prepare at least two adventures and let players essentially select which they pick. After one has been finished, the other should be altered as appropriate due to PCs ignoring it. The undead gains more minions or the orcish horde sacks more towns or the rakshasa infiltrates a position of power. Even if the adventures are on rails, players still have some choices: To engage this adventure or the other one, with the neglected situation often growing worse. Or maybe some other adventurers solve the other case. Something concrete that the players will notice.

Slightly less simple method is to ask players what their characters will next pursue and to build the next adventure around this. Pacing is important: The direction that PCs take should be clear at the start of each adventure, otherwise boring play and all symptons of that may start manifesting. Big twists and reveals should happen near the end of the session and the next adventure at the very end, preferably roleplayed to not make it boring, if people are in the mood for that. Email or simple face-to-face meetings between games may be an option based on the social environment of participants.

The key in both of the above methods is to clearly communicate with players that their choice matters. This may be out-of-game or in-game, whichever works more smoothly and reliable. Another important factor is to always start each game on the run. Either the plot hooks hit them on the head (more or less literally) by someone asking for help, some PC hearing rumours, the party being attacked, et cetera or the preselected adventure gets rolling right away, e.g. “You are in the sewers and have discovered the body. Who has the light source?”.

One way to get rid of the rails is sandbox gaming. It takes a heavy up-fron investment, though, and is not trivial to get correct. Do this only if you like building or memorising settings and have the time for it.

Not surprisingly, the method is to create a dynamic setting and then let players create characters and do as they will within the confines of the setting. The tricky part is “dynamic”. The setting must have interesting things going on on the scope that players can concretely affect. If they start with power and prestige, politics and wars are good default solutions. If they start as random farmboys, which is probably the better way to introduce elaborate settings for long-term play, slowly giving them power and prestige opens up many possibilities. The “slowly” part is to avoid player freesing at the terror of having the negotiate politics or an unknown setting with a fairly unfamiliar character.

There are some common pitfalls hidden sandboxes. First is players who don’t get interested. It is probably a good idea to start with a bang to avoid this. Burning farms is a long-time tradition among orcs and evil empires. Second is falling in love with the setting. Good gaming is the point. Setting is at best secondary. Players probably are not that interested in random setting bits (but if someone is, let him build parts of it or get involved in other ways). Also: Player characters are the most unreliable portion of the setting. They will blow it to pieces and reassemble them. Or not. Allow this to happen. Maybe they dethroned the emperor. Good for them. Play on. The setting is not sacred. Third is to make a totally impenetrable or alien setting. Resist the temptation. Players will start interacting with the setting only after they understand how it works, generally speaking. As clash bowley did when designing Book of Jalan, steal liberally from real world cultures, but feel free to mix and match cultural tropes, religion, environment, etc. Monotheistic roman dwarves living in jungle or something. It will look and feel exotic but also familiar, which is exactly the point.

The method of gamemastering in a sandbox is to have the aforementioned dynamic forces, player characters who are involved with them, and the rest of the setting for context and ideas. When preparing, think about the motivation and goals of the dynamic parts. What will they do to accomplish them? What do they want player characters to do? What will they do to PCs? How will they be involved? There’s the adventure. Some fairly static but interesting locations and events are good to keep the game changing. A dragon sleeping in the cavern, some random ruins there, an enchanted island here. Just don’t assume that players will go after them. Restricting PC travel is useful, because one can always spring random encounters (that hopefully do have a point or serve a purpose besides depleting hit points) on hapless travelers.

More on the next post. These are the easiest to adopt from railroading background, I’d say. Also: remember to inform the players that you won’t railroad as much anymore. You can’t change a group’s style by yourself.

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Defining railroading

2 December, 2007 at 11:31 am (definition, rpg theory) (, , )

Disclaimer: I think railroading is distasteful. My definition portrays it as negative.

Game master’s decisions are railroading when

  1. Players assume they can have an effect on a particular aspect of the game.
  2. There is no credible diegetic (fictional, in-game) reason for players to not be able to affect that aspect.
  3. GM’s decision negates or marginalises player input with regards to that aspect.

I think the first part makes railroading inherently bad and feel railroady to the players.

Example time.

  • A band of merry PCs must decide to go either south or west because they are at crossroads. Wherever they go, they shall encounter the same group of bandits. They have no reason to assume that there would or would not be bandits at either direction. Not railroading.
  • As above, but reliable sources tell that there is only one group of bandits and they prey on the south road. The group of PCs take pains to make it seem like they are going south, but actually go west. They spread rumours, check out that they are not bieng spied, etc. Still they face the bandits. This I would call a minor instance of railroading, unless the bandits had a good reason to go west and it is revealed to the players.

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