Friday, August 13, 2010

KWORC Part 1 - Clear Goals

Dynamic adventures are a bit different from encounter based ones. This is not to say they don't include encounters - they do - but the priority is less about a specific set of encounters and more on the encounters that will emerge organically from the events of play.

The primary thing that defines a dynamic adventure is that the characters are usually proactive in pursuit of a larger goal. In an encounter game, players may be proactive in the short term (that is, they may proactive seek to get to the bottom of a dungeon) but in the broader sense their actions are directed by external forces (like employers) or simple motives (profit).

This line can be a little fuzzy. An encounter based game may have character with personal motives providing subplots, but in a dynamic game, the entire direction of play is shaped by what's important to the players. To illustrate, consider the case of the Lord of the Rings - it would be entirely possible to play it either way. As an encounter based game, the players would have a goal (DROP RING IN VOLCANO) and the GM would seed the map with encounters that the characters would encounter as they go. In a dynamic game, players would have a subtly different goal (DEFEAT SAURON) and they will find a way to accomplish this. Maybe they drop the ring in the volcano, but maybe they do something the council rejected, like take up the ring themselves or sail across the sea with it.

Some GMs are nodding here, and others are wincing, because this is an invitation to completely break a campaign. In an encounter based game, this is a problem. In a dynamic game, it's an *expectation*.

Still, it's not just a matter of waving a wand and saying to your players "Go nuts, dudes!" You can do that, certainly, and that's very nearly the definition of empowered sandbox play[1], but that's another topic entirely. For dynamic play to work, the characters need a clear but open ended goal to drive play.[2] That seems like a simple enough thing, and in cases like DEFEAT SAURON it pretty much is, but it can be rough to come up with something that works.

Of the two criteria for a good goal[3], clarity is probably the more straightforward. It needs to have a little specificity to it - notice that DEFEAT SAURON is a specific verb and noun combo, while DEFEAT EVIL would be pretty vague unless there's actually a guy named EVIL in the campaign.[4] In a pinch, the VERB NOUN model works pretty well, though. I mean, you can make it longer with fancier language, like EXACT REVENGE ON SIX FINGERED MAN WHO KILLED MY FATHER, but practically that's PUNISH 6-FINGERED MAN. Specific, actionable verb, and a specific target. Perfect.

Notice the frequency of the use of the word "specific" there? That's the trick of it. A goal is clear when it is specific, both in its outcome and in its call to action.

The second criteria, that it be an open ended goal, takes a little bit more thought. The goal should not be immediately achievable[5] and it should not have an obvious course of action. "Rescue the Princess from the cultists" is a good goal for an adventure (because, hey, find the cultists, attack the cultists, rescue the princess, done!) but it's not going to invite much variety of play or drive a campaign.

In contrast, if the players had a goal of DEFEAT THE CULT, and the cult captures a princess, then the short term goal grows naturally from the big goal. One of the signs that you have a good goal is that it's easy to imagine secondary goals that spin off it for the sake of a session or even a few scenes.

Once you have a goal, play has a direction. Players with a clear, open-eneded goal are usually readily to launch out of the gate, so you need to be ready for them, and that's what the next part of this will address.[6]

1 - Sandbox Play is a term for a playstyle where you can go anywhere and do anything you can get away with. The idea is that there's no game per se, just something to explore, akin to the difference between a toy or a game. In some sandbox games the players are observers, changing the world very little. In others, the world is utterly transformed by their play. This style is fantastic for exploration games, but it can be a little unfocused (for better or for worse).

2 - Maybe more than one. How many goals a game can tolerate depends a lot on the specifics of the group.

3 - There's also a third secret criterea - that it be a goal which engages the players. It is often quite reasonable to start a game without a goal and to instead find it in play. A goal found in play, especially if it involved someone really angering the players, can get you more excitement and engagement than the most planning.

4 - If there is, that may suggest you're actually playing a Japanese video game.

5 - Unless you are specifically limiting the scope of the game. In that case a goal which can be resolved in one session is totally in bounds.

6 - I still haven't defined KWORC yet, have I? Man, I'm a stinker.


  1. Now you have me thinking.

    Deus: Topple Empire. Sub-goals: Set Up Our Forgotten God, Manage Tayven, Don't Let Yaz Blow Himself Or Us Up, Restore Callister (this was just a Sheva goal). Kick (*#&%&@^!'s Ass. (Sheva had a list of why she wanted to do this.)

    Born to be Kings: Save Amber. (From whom was often a tricky question.) Survive Amber. Save Oberon. Survive Oberon. Remove RatCritter Doppleganger's. (Don't ask.) Save Sonnet. (Which became Revenge Sonnet.) Rescue Cyrus's Little Girl, which was actually Above All, Don't Let Cyrus Find Out We're Responsible for Feeding His Little Girl To THe Spirit of Kolvir. Don't Piss Off Karm.

    It holds up.

    ColdWar Game: Contain The Marks. Save the US from Russia. Avoid Being Fed To A Box. Engineer A Better Approach To Everything. Get Our Team Out Alive and Not In A Box. Avoid Awkward Family Conversations About Uncle Peter With A Gun And Why Aren't You Married Yet, Anna.

    I rather like this model.

  2. I love this. I have just started a Blood & Honor game (similar system to House of the Blooded) and one of my concerns with the game was setting goals in a game with a high level of player narrative control.

    My campaign would be perfect for this kind of Dynamic goals, where the players would all understand the higher level goal, and use their narrative control to steer the game towards that goal, without building encounters that lead to the goal.

  3. Have you ever read Orrorsh, the land of Horror Sourcebook for Torg? [Well worth acquiring a copy to peruse btw. Also for handling horrors (players need to succeed at investigating them before they can defeat them - or rather, prevent them from using their pool of special powers) and giving good game mechanical reasons for why a party should split up in a haunted house.]

    Anyway, one of the mechanisms for the occult in this world is to construct an occult event by creating an occult sentence, from an object, verb, and noun. For example: I will kill my husband's murderer.

    However this simple statment is difficult to accomplish unless you are a ridiculously powerful occultist backed with lots of destiny points. So you have to use more sentences to reduce the difficulty of each one. For example: I will create an enchanted sword; the enchanted sword will kill my husband's murderer.

    You can iterate this procedure, until you get a set of sentences where you think it is possible to complete each step successfully. For example: I shall gather some of my husband's blood; my husband's blood will be used to create an enchanted sword; the enchanted sword will kill my husband's murderer.

    Until you get a final ritual. For example (after a few more iterations): I shall get a piece of the monster's flesh; the monster's flesh shall give me clues; the clues shall lead me to books; the books shall contain a ritual; the ritual shall involve a bit of my husband's blood, a sword and a furnace. I shall gather my husband's blood. I shall gain a sword. I shall
    find a furnace; I shall use the blood and furnace to create an enchanted sword; this sword shall kill my husbands murderer.

    Each step successfully carried out increases the effectiveness of the final result, and are really a scene in and of themselves.

    It's a very powerful and evocative technique for the native magic of Orrorsh, which coincidentally allows the player to write an adventure themselves.

  4. @rev Heh. You're going to like Monday.

    And I continue to bemoan that I never got into Torg.

  5. @Rob: Of course I'll like Monday. Apart from liking the song, why wouldn't I? <grin>

    It took a while for Torg to sort itself out, and it always had the misleading impression that it was overly complicated, when it actually relied on a fairly simple system (admittedly one that was logarithmic rather than linear).

    The sourcebooks showed how you could apply this system in different ways to create genre specific effects. I still love the gadgeteering rules from The Nile Empire, where you draw a blueprint of your device.

    Similarly the magic system of Asyle used a cohesive set of metaphysics to allow you to implement a magic spell. The only problem with this is that the player (and gamemaster) had to understand the metaphysics themselves before they could truly design a spell. Which meant that most people relied on published grimoires (which was what generally happened in game, as well).

    You had the Cyberpapacy and Tharkold for two different versions of cyberpunk (one based in fantasy net-running, the other in a more realistic cyber-infiltration technique).

    Because the game was benchmarked against real-world measures it was easy to add stuff on the fly. Especially if you knew physics. For example the effectiveness of guns was a function of the kinetic energy of the round. This made it easy to add new weapons to the game. Want to add a vehicle. Look up the various values and you have a vehicle.

    I think one of the reasons it didn't generate a large initial following (although it did generate a loyal one) was the first sourcebook wasn't really a great introduction to the system. The Living Land, which coincidentally covered America, whilst an interesting idea on paper never really had much pazzazz. [Many people actually mutated it to the full savage world pulp reality of The Land Below when that supplement was produced. Which worked a lot better.]

    All these were interesting lessons that were later applied to the production of DC Heroes.

    I thought it was a great pity that it was never as popular as it probably deserved to be. Which shows how bad writing and editing can really damage a game.

  6. Oh, and I definitely agree with point [3]. Some of the best games have been ones where we inadvertedly discovered a goal in play. Which was amusing, because it really wasn't a goal either the players or the gamemaster wanted to pursue.

    One particular one was when we were (slightly) inconvenienced by the Cult of Arioch. We dealt with the problem and continued on. A little later we encountered them again (again, not really connected with what we were doing). In no time at all it had become personal. We had a bounty on our heads from the cult, and a few temples might have been desecrated, followed from some attempted divine retribution from some Chaos monstrosity that usually stumbled over it's own feet. It became self-propogating and self-escalating on each side. Retribution breeds retribution.

    The fun thing for us players was the gamemaster quite liked the Cult of Arioch and had lavished lots of care on it's presentation (which was why we first ran into it). He wasn't expecting it to turn into a holy war. And I don't think he quite realised how effective we would be at dealing with the problem. But the good thing was that he played fair, even when he created an anti-party to destroy us (the problem being we had a better idea of our own vulnerabilities than he did).

    Lots and lots of fun. {And the Other Gods probably were laughing at poor Arioch as well as us.]

  7. Found this post while looking for another post of yours (one involving the Coen Brothers and coin flipping... long story).
    I've been following your blog for a while, but must have missed this one. Lately I've been thinking about running a western/Lovecraft mash-up, but couldn't think of what system to run it in, because I couldn't think of what kind of game I wanted it to be. The style of adventure design here is perfect for planning the kind of adventure I want it to be. Thank you for posting this up here.


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