Monday, January 9, 2012

Archetypes and Planting Flags

We respond instinctively to archetypes, and a lot of shysters take advantage of this. Yes, there's a lot of interesting, useful stuff about them (Hero With A Thousand Blah Blah Blah) but the reality is that if you come up with a list of, say, 3 or more things, and define it broadly, then it will resonate with people as a powerful model. Some of this is just numbers: If I list 8 types of Stamp Collectors and define them loosely enough, odds are good I've covered 90%+ of the potential audience, and that last 10% will probably find a way to make it work. A larger part of it is how our brains tend to glom onto data - archetypes (like stereotypes) are the chocolate frosted sugar bombs to our brain's appetite for understanding - they're tasty and they go down easy.

So, with all that cynicism established, I do want to talk about how they're useful - especially the ones you create yourself.

After my post last week, I was speaking to one of the subjects (the Rookie) and he voiced an interesting thought, wishing there was some way to note people's archetypes and then keep track of the characters they've played and see how those things overlap. We agreed that for a lot of players there's a comfort zone that they like to stay within, and there's a lot of value in pushing them out of it, but at the same time you don't want to push them too far out of it.

Now, doing this is tricky, but the first part of requires identifying the player's comfort zone, and this is where the idea of making your own archetypes becomes handy. See, an advantage of making archetypes for your players is that you can afford to not be entirely precise, but at the same time you're going to get more specific than you would with generic character types.

Once you've figured that out, you can do something Fred did, long ago, when setting up Born to Be Kings (The first FATE game, and my favorite campaign of all time). See, Fred knew his players and their tendencies pretty well, so as part of character creation he took each player aside and planted a single "flag" outside of their comfort zone. This flag was the one element he was imposing on the character backgrounds, and it served as an irritant to form a pearl around.

What's interesting was that each of us responded differently to the flag. One player who usually tends towards logistics had a fae element inserted, and jumped into it with both feet. Another player was uncomfortable with it, and that friction drove a lot of play. But one way or another it forced us all to play differently than we would have if we'd been given free reign.

Constraint breed creativity strikes again. Who knew?

Anyway, this is one of those ideas that not hard to implement, but may be tricky to implement well depending upon how well your players respond to structure and how much trust they have in you as a GM (especially if your flag would force them to make what they consider a non-optimal build choice) so you may need to learn how to strike a balancing act. This is easier in something like FATE or Cortex Plus where an Aspect or Distinction is rarely a "wrong choice", but it's still entirely possible with games like Pathfinder or 4e (4e actually offers some really interesting options for this with Themes), even if they are entirely in-fiction.

Anyway, when the time comes for you to start your next game, stop and think about your players, and how you can help them push beyond the archetype you see them in and into something more complicated, interesting and fun.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Five People At My Table

I believe that when you design a game, it helps to have an audience in mind, the more specific the better. Trying to make a game for everyone seems noble, but it's unlikely to challenge you as a designer, and it's more likely to produce something that's fairly weak sauce. Yes, targeting an audience runs the risk of making your focus too narrow, but the alternative is vastly more boring.

For me, there's a table of five players that I keep in my head when I design. They raise questions and challenges to my work that I would not raise myself. They're all real people, dear friends and loved ones, but today I want to talk about them in terms of the roles they play.

First and foremost, we have the Connector. She plays for story, and for her, stories are about people much more than they are about grand, exciting things. She has negligible patience for rules, especially for rules pertaining to things she views as uninteresting or unimportant to play. However, she is intensely motivated to engage the fiction, very organized and outright driven in her play. Left unchecked, she will take over discrete but very tidy portions of the game world.

She teaches me to ask myself whether a rule really makes the game better, and she forces me to make sure that the fiction is engaging and robust enough to survive her interest.

Next, we have the Evil Muppet. He's creative, whimsical, engaged and is himself a fantastic GM, so he's a huge help at the table, but he also has a strong agenda of play - he wants me to bring the pain. He wants play to be personal, intense, laying bare buckets of blood and pain.

Just as the Connector makes me look at the fiction, the Evil Muppet makes me look at the characters and ask if I'm giving the tools to make these into the kind of people capable of driving and feeling that kind of intensity, or am I just providing interesting numbers. He also forces me to raise the bar on my design because if I don't, he'll casually make it better.

After that is The Swooshy Giant Brain. The Brain is smart. Really, really smart - probably smarter than anyone else at the table, certainly smarter than me. Yet despite that, her big interest is to swoosh around, stab things, and occasionally do something totally unexpected. But she's still going to almost absent-mindedly deconstruct or extrapolate the most complex things you put in front of her with terrifying ease, whether they're rules, puzzles or the very underlying logic of your game.

The Brain teaches me to build bulletproof. Complexity has its place, but she makes me really question whether it is adding to things. But strangely, she also reminds me to check for the fun.

Next is The Rookie who, in fairness, has been at this table long enough that the name is no-longer really fair, but sometimes these things stick. The Rookie is enthusiastic, rules saavy, willing to learn and all around a great player, but his experience has been both narrower and briefer than mine. In many ways, the rookie is very much like myself, minus most of a decade.

The Rookie teaches me not to take things for granted, whether techniques or rules history. He's smart enough that I don't need to hold his hand, but that doesn't mean I should leave him hanging.

Last is the Wildcard, who alternates between being the greatest inspiration and the most maddening player at the table with reckless abandon. He's a great player with enough system patience to try something out followed by an enthusiastic willingness to dump anything he thinks is crap. To call him a proactive player would be an understatement, and he couples that initiative with a twisted, creative mind that guarantees to take things in directions you would never expect.

The Wildcard is something like the mirror image of The Swooshy Brain - just as I need to design for her scalpel, I must design for his oncoming freight train. He forces me to build robustly, but more than that, he forces me to challenge my own assumptions. When I ask myself what he would do in a given situation, the answer often allows me to surprise myself.

So those are my five. They help me out, whether I'm designing a game, planning an adventure or just kicking around an idea. So I guess the question is: who's at your table?