Sunday, June 24, 2007

Politics and Pokemon

Pokemon is a game I wish I could get more out of. There is no game which has more explicit and elegantly integrated stakes.

For those not familiar, Pokemon is a weird idea that has grown huge in its success. The idea is that kids in the setting go out and capture stange, kind of magical-through-a-sci-fi-lens creatures. They then train those creatures and have them fight one another for badges and prizes. There might be other stakes riding on a fight (We're trying to save Pa's farm!) but the stakes are always explicit, and the path to them (victory) is always apparent.

This is awesome.

The only way it could be more awesome is if the creatures themselves were also the stakes. That is to say, if the prizes _were_ the creatures, and by deciding what you were fighting with, you're deciding what you're willing to risk. If you have stable of three critters, Alphasaur, Betadon and Crusher, you decide how much you value each one before you put it on the line for a conflict. If Crusher is your go-to critter, maybe you don't want to use him in a rsiky situation. Of course, if you do use him, you increase your odds of victory, but that's what makes it a tough decision. You're getting a huge amount of narrative power out of the mechanics without ever stepping out of play to establish stakes. That's _hot_.

Now, there are some mechanical hurdles this sort of system creates. Most notably, once someone starts winning, they tend to keep winning, because they accumulate resources. Similarly, if you lose your best critter, you're more likely to lose subsequent matches. This is a real, but not insurmountable problem. Having robust ways to refill your stable, and structures that limit advantage - like a fixed stable size - can go a long way to allowing a winner and advantage, but keeping it from being overwhelming.

The rub of all this is that this suggests the shape I want for conflict in a political or intrigue-centric game (Polimon?). Instead of creatures, you have connections, and the simple decision of what favors to call in and connections to use determines you capability _and_ what you're risking to accomplish it. It's harder to translate this thinking to more direct conflicts without getting very abstract, though if you are willing to _get_ abstract, the applications are obvious. Still for games with a strongly active setting - games where NPCs have agendas and activities - like Amber or any game where gods walk the earth, to say nothing of spy games and political thrillers, this could go a long way.


Friday, June 22, 2007

Adventure Construction

Ported from here.

The original Dragonlance modules are both awesome and terrible. On the awesome side, they were a story of a scope that had never before been seen, and they put the players in the center of events, rather than watching them unfold from the sidelines as much Cooler NPCs do the important things. It was, at least on paper, exactly what every young D&D player wished their games could be.

On the downside, they show their age pretty clearly these days. The strong railroading of the early modules, the oversized cast of PCs (far in excess of any gaming group I know of) and the kind of weird all-over-the-board-ness of events over the course of the modules make it much easier to appreciate than to actually run.

Now, what's interesting is that as much as DL had railroading, and is vilified for that, it doesn't really have any _more_ railroading than some of the adventures that have come out for, say, Eberron, which are hailed as marvels. From this I conclude a few things:
1. People have been told the DL modules are railroady, so even people who have never read them feel strongly about this.
2. As gaming technology has improved, we've made railroading either more tolerable or better hidden.
3. One man's railroading in another man's clear sense of direction.

Which explanation I favor most changes with the weather and my level of cynicism.

Railroading, for those unfamiliar, basically means an adventure which "runs on rails" - the characters have no meaningful choices, except how to address the problems they encounter, and often even those are strictly curtailed (the green Froglord can only be slain by the Blue Sapphire Sword!). It's often used in a purely pejorative sense, but that's unfair - train rides can be a lot of fun. Most Video Game RPGs, for example, make heavy use of railroading, but are still enjoyed by many folks.

Now, the complete opposite of this is the totally open world. Go anywhere, do anything, any decisions made are entirely organic. Again, this can be fun, but the danger is that without some direction, a game gets unfocused and boring fairly quickly. To get a sense of why, imagine a book or movie which is basically "Just wander around, doing whatever." (Now, I can think of a few movies which sort of fit that model, and they're interesting but not necessarily exciting.) In purely practical gaming terms, it often ends up with the players sitting around wondering "Ok, what do we do now?" which is a kiss of death.

Now, folks playing this at home can usually adapt either of these things to their needs. A good GM can hide the tracks so players have no idea their railroading, or can improvise so furiously that wherever the players go, there's something interesting to do. I appreciate the level of skill that requires, but it's hard to write adventures with those GMs as the target audience, partly because they're rare, and partly because they may have the least need of your product.

So when you sit down to write an adventure, or series of adventures, the challenge is to provide meaningful choices (to avoid railroading) while still providing clear direction (so players don't sit on their hands). The traditional solution to this is the dungeon. There's a reason that dungeons (albeit with different trappings) show up in space, in cyberpunk, in spy games and in almost anything else - not only is it a comfortable model (thanks to the universality of D&D) but it's practical. It creates _limited_ meaningful choice (Do whatever you want, but only within the bounds of the dungeon) while providing clear direction (Kill things, take their stuff). The latter gets so much attention that people tend to overlook the utility of the former.

Unfortunately, the natural limit on the Dungeon is scope. With some mind boggling exceptions, it is hard to put an entire campaign in a dungeon. Eventually, you've killed everything, leveled up, and need a different challenge. Again, the easiest way to deal with this is to have a campaign simply be a way to string dungeons together, which occasional forays into the Big Blue Dungeon that you or I like to call "outside". Unfortunately, you then tend to end up back in the land of railroading, where there is no meaningful choice but to go from dungeon to dungeon.

So why is this all so problematic? Well, because there's still no really strong alternative model for published material. But alternatives are what we seek. Why? Well, here's the thing - I'm pointing a finger at dungeons and all, but really, how many people's games genuinely feel like they just keep going into dungeons and killing things? Very few, I think. GMs and DMs and Storytellers and Mythguides (snerk) and whatever's bring these things to life by bringing in context and characters and motivation. My thinking is that most GMs already have the tools needed to try another model, they just don't have the support.

Now, there have been other models.

Motivations - One method that gets some miles is to simply frame the situation and resources as well as the motivations and agendas of all of the parties involved in a given situation. The GM is basically given all this an told to just let it loose, making decisions about what happens based on this information - NPCs will pursue their agenda to the best of their abilities, and PC action will impact their ability to do so. A lot of Amber plays this way, and it's a common model for Mysteries, and it is probably the most potently dynamic way to do things, but it has drawbacks. It's hard to convey all of this information in a useful way, and providing direction for how NPCs will respond to PC actions is hard, if only because PCs are strongly unpredictable. An adventure can be written with any depth of contingency planning, but the deeper it is, the more the GM needs to keep in mind, so it's a tricky balancing act. The cheat for dealing with this is to make players ineffective - as many companies do - so that their actions don't derail the actions of the much more interesting NPCs who you get to watch.

The other issue is that it needs player buy in - players need to care about what's going on, otherwise all the complexity of events is just background noise. Similarly, the goal of play needs to be worked into this complexity - if the players can just smash and grab the McGuffin, they're less likely to spend their time negotiating among factions. Sometimes setting (like Amber) provides this buy in, but often it must be created, and that tends to fall down flat because most publishers equate "Strongly motivated NPC" with "NPC cooler than your LAME PC", which is pretty sad. Off the top of my head, I can think of a number of bad examples of this model, but almost no good ones.

Hard & Soft Points - This model opens things up by saying "Ok, here is the general thrust of what's going on, and here are about 20 scenes that you could play out in resolving it. Scenes 4, 7, 11, 15 and 20 are mandatory, but the others you can take or leave as you see fit." The mandatory scenes are "hard points" and the optional ones are "soft points."
Since "scenes" can be anything from an encounter with an NPC to a chase across the countryside, this creates a framework that can cover a lot of ground. What it has effectively done is recreated the dungeon on a much broader scope - the bounds are now much larger, and the rooms are now scenes, but the design is the same. What's different is that the openness means players can step "out of frame" and go visit their uncle on the coast unless there is some pressing issue not to. Of course, while it's awesome that players have that freedom, this sort of design offers no help for dealing with that, except for motivations to scare players back into the framework.
To date, I've only seen this model in adventures from Alderac, most notably in their 7th Sea products. It's an interesting model, but I feel it really needs to be layered on top of something robust enough to handle characters stepping out of the framework. I suspect, on some level, it lead to the thinking behind the Location Game.

The Location Campaign - I am, in this case, speaking of a specific product: 50 Fathoms, a campaign book for Savage Worlds. I have literally never seen anything like it, but I would like to see more. The basic model is that they wrote the adventure into the campaign setting, so that each location that players go to have something going on. Some of these things tie into a larger plot and point to other things, but those things are just presumed to be "out there" for when players decide to get to them, if ever. Aside from the specific adventure hooks, there's a core underlying game of sailing your ship around and trading to make money, so there's incentive to travel. Additionally, new adventure material can be inserted into the existing framework rather than being a free-standing thing that happens to be set in the world.

The net result is something that feels like the more open computer RPGs, where you can explore, but there's something to do if you want to, which is pretty freaking awesome. The drawback is that, well, the adventure is the setting. This means the setting only has so much depth beyond the planned adventures, which means it's possible to "use up" all the cool stuff in the setting. So it's dynamic, but only to a certain point. Now, that's bad if your group likes an existing world, or doesn't mind scrapping a setting when the campaign is done, but it's fine if you like the idea of a setting existing to tell a particular story, and even great if you enjoy viewing the setting as a skeleton and building onto it over play - though that last group tend to make their own fun.

Flowcharts as Dungeons! - Another specific one. An early D&D 3.0 adventure, Speaker in Dreams took the risky step of taking place in a city rather than a dungeon, and I applaud the choice. One of the things they did to try to smooth over the confusion was to write up a flowchart of events and present it like it was a dungeon the players were moving through. I'd be curious what others thought of it, but I walked away with a "Neat theory, not so much in practice" impression. That said, it did inform on some of my subsequent thinking.

So now what? Well, the direction I'm going with this comes to an odd revelation. There is a discipline that may help us address all the points that we need to consider in writing adventures, including directed openness, flexibility, and presentation of information. That discipline is Project Management.

Weird, I know, but project management is the art of juggling uncertainty in pursuit of a goal. You have no real control over the folks in your group, you can't make concrete predictions of how things will go or how long they'll take. Unexpected events can cause everything you've planned to cascade horribly.

I dunno about you, but those sound a lot like the same challenges I deal with when GMing.

Anyway, this means the next question is "how do you plan an adventure like you would plan a project?"

Story Structure

Reposted from Here
Today we're talking about the story skeleton, and the idea that any story can be boiled down to two simple sentences:


The idea is simply plug in what you plan to use as the variables. Now, the idea that this same model could be used for adventure design is pretty much obvious, so much so that some games have incorporated it. Probably the best example of this is Gareth Michael Skarka's Underworld which has an extensive adventure seed generation section. It begins with a skeleton from screenwriting rather than novel writing, but which looks quite familiar.

The main characters must [DO SOMETHING] but have to contend with [COMPLICATIONS] while being confronted by [OPPOSITION](1)

Combined, they provide a flow that looks something like:
Premise --> Character ---> Goal/Action ---> Complication ---->Opposition

The interesting difference is that novel version emphasizes the premise but does not worry about complications which are not opposition and the film version is indifferent to premise. I end up wondering if they're the same thing - after all, in many stories, the premise establishes the complications. In reading, I think not, so I break them out. The Novel writing one is ultimately the one I'd stick with since it seems to be more conflict-driven (Since writing needs conflict, and film needs spectacle) but that's a matter of taste.

Now, here's the rub. If you can boil your adventure down to one sentence, that's pretty powerful mojo, since it's serves as an excellent thinking tool. Especially if, like me, you prefer a minimum of prep. it can Crystalize all of the things you've got rattling around. To take an example, I'm looking at my next Exalted session, as it currently sits in my head:

"With the forces of Thorns marching north, our heroes race to gather their armies and recover the artifact that may be the undoing of the Juggernaut. But can they succeed when in the face of Sidereal dedicated to eradicating their existence?"

That's actually kind of weak, and boiling it down like that nicely highlights the potential problems for the game. First, I have 2 very separate goals, but only one notable point of opposition, which will probably be resolved by a big fight scene at the beginning of the session, and since Thorns is not going to show up until the end of the session, I've got a long stretch with no conflict. I could fill it with scenery chewing, but that would kind of be a cheat.

So I can drill down on the issue of raising their armies. They've gathered much of the mundane force already, have an NPC gathering another set of troops, but have not yet raised their spirit and elemental allies. That immediately suggests some possibilities - spirit court politics could easily add an element of intrigue to the latter half of the session, especially if I personify it - another God, equal in power to the PCs Ally, who refuses to fight and influences most of the local spirits. This could be complicated nicely by the fact that one of the mercenary groups the PCs hired have their own agenda. I could even extend it into the mortal realm, with the question of mortal soldiers and officers who think it's suicide to stay. Were I to do this, the summary become more:

"With the forces of Thorns marching north, our heroes race to gather their armies and recover the artifact that may be the undoing of the Juggernaut. But can they succeed when the Sidereals strike and their armies are threatened from within?"

Much tighter and usable. (2)

Alternately, I could say "Ok, the army thing is going well enough, I need to find something else". An old enemy or friend could show up. I could throw an assassin at them. When I get an idea, i can try to see if I can make a summary skeleton out of it.

So the skeleton can be a tool to create an idea (put flesh on it) or one to refine and analyze an idea (by stripping down to it). Some GMs may wan tto use it both ways, some only one or the other, but it remains a simple, powerful tool and one well worth keeping in the toolbox.

1 - He then expands that into amore gaming specific: The main characters must [DO] [SOMETHING] at [LOCATION] , but have to contend with [COMPLICATIONS] while being confronted by [OPPOSITION] and provides charts with 64 options for each variable. This is really neat, but it also subtly changes the purpose of this tool. Where the simple skeleton helps provide a tight focus on what you're doing, this more detailed approach can provide more inspiration but at a risk to that clarity of focus. This does not mean it's a bad method, quite the contrary, but it's important to realize that more variables do not simple make it better.

2 - And it may well be the thing I end up using, despite the fact that some of my players will read this, because they're all grown ups, and not everything needs to be a complete surprise. I would even go so far as to suggest that if a player group gets the skeleton in advance, it means that they can say to the GM "I'd like to make sure that this thing which is of interest to me comes up because it' seems appropriate." For example, If you know the next session is going to involve the Order of the Hand, and a PC has a mentor from that organization, it lets them go to the GM and say "I want a scene with him"