Thursday, April 14, 2011

Lateral Connections

One thing that has really been sticking with me about Dragon Age 2 has been (as is so often the case with Bioware titles) the relationships and personalities of your companions. Certainly, the arc of your hero is interesting, but it is the people around you that make it feel personal and compelling. DA2 does well enough in this that a few of your companions feel like they could be heroes (well, protagonists) of their own stories, yet this does not diminish your story in the least. Of course, the conceit that your story is being told by one of them does not hurt this perception.

Translating this to the tabletop is an interesting challenge for unexpected reasons. Certainly, there are lots of ways for a GM to make NPCs more compelling, and I’m all for those, but I don’t think they apply. It is far more apt to consider the other characters to be comparable to the other characters played by your fellow players.

Through that lens, the challenge is obvious: How can you create and encourage that kind of lateral play?

For all the reams of advice about players dealing with GMs and GMs dealing with players, there’s precious little about how to drive play between players. I suspect a lot of that is a result of game books being primarily written for GMs, and thus assuming the GM-Player dynamic out of habit. A few games address this, at least indirectly. One of the most subtle and brilliant rules in The Shadow of Yesterday is that you refresh your pools with certain types of actions, but those actions MUST be social in nature. Since everyone has the same pools, there’s a mechanical incentive to go do player-initiated stuff together.

Smallville deserves mention in this regard because I cannot think of another game where lateral connections are so essential. Relationships with other characters are an essential part of your character sheet. This is mighty stuff, but in some ways its _more_ of a solution than I’m looking for. I don’t want things to be quite that explicit, but at the same time I want character issues to be drivers of play with each other, at least occasionally.

Specifically, I love the idea that character A's issue creates play for Character B (and perhaps the whole group) rather than just being something that Character A deals with. Maybe this demands that issues come with an explicit "and here's the reason I can't deal with it myself". That's a good start, but I might go even further and find a way for character B to pursue the issue because it indirectly creates a problem for character A, if only because character B is distracted. Hard to do persuasively, though.

I am not entirely sure if this is possible, but it’s a problem I’m chewing on right now, and if nothing else, it’s producing some interesting flavors.


  1. My solution to this has often been to tie a character's issues to the game's larger events. If Character A's sister is working for the villain, then the rest of the group is going to interact with that relationship. It doesn't feel like a complete answer to what you're talking about, though, because it doesn't lend itself well to one-on-one interactions between players. Creating tension between the characters' goals might work better, but you always have to be careful with that, because too much can wreck most games pretty quickly.

  2. What about Apocalypse World's History mechanics? I've, sadly, not had a chance to play Apocalypse World, so I don't know how well that drives inter-player stories.

    In my own games I try to encourage strong character bonds, which almost always provides fun party dynamics and sometimes drives the story organically. I've very little success with lateral connections, as you defined them.

    Looking forward to further musings from you on this.

  3. This is something that's eluded me forever. Players can RP some funny bits with each other or even debate each other in character when they have a difference of opinion on a course of action, but when it gets to moving their character specific stories along, they almost always wall those actions off. I don't think it occurs to many players to bring other players into their character stories, since creating hooks for the table to pursue usually isn’t the player’s domain in a game like D&D. It does kind of fall on the DM to open up that domain, not just open up, but getting them to use it. Just how to do that is more difficult than it seems. So far, I’ve only been able to do it by accident.

  4. I agree that this is something I'd like to see more of. A lot of my favorite games (Mouse Guard in particular, though it's hardly the sole or even a notable offender) seem to presume it will just happen. There's no advice for what players can do, or what I can do as a GM to encourage it.

    Two games I have read recently that seem to handle this well are Full Light, Full Steam and Cold City. FLFS uses player-driven narration, with explicit rules and rewards for passing narration between players and acknowledging other characters' vital character traits in your narration. Cold City uses a "Trust" system plus "Hidden Agendas" to encourage dynamic intrigue.

  5. Smallville pushes it right out into the center of the dynamic of play not just because it suits the genre we're aiming at, but because it capped the problem of wildly imbalanced characters by turning everything sideways. Those two aspects of the system are my favorite parts of it.

    However, the other thing is that as nobody was really going to make that big of a shift, I figure Smallville usefully serves as the "other end of the spectrum" from games where relationships have no mechanical influence whatsoever.

  6. Dogs in the Vineyard and Bliss Stage are very good at this. Also The Mountain Witch. Sometimes DRYH (once spectactularly), sometimes not.

    My current belief is that character vulnerability leads to other players' caring, and for vulnerability to be expressed the GM needs to test and signal that it's safe to do so. (GMless games may need other approaches, but since I don't care that much about GMless games I don't think about that nearly as much.)

    And thanks for helping me put a finger on something that's bothered me about my recent campaigns. In my favorite long-running campaigns, the characters grew to care about each other very much (which is to say, the players cared about each others characters). In more recent efforts, that didn't happen, and I found that less satisfying, although the players still had fun.


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