Tuesday, April 26

Screw It, Let's Do This Thing

One of the most prominent things that emerged from 4e D&D was the "Yes, and..." rule. It really was a complete mindset shift for a lot of DMs - the idea that the player, and the general attitude of the table, were the point. Not the story, not the railroad, but having fun with friends.

In retrospect, it was pretty freaking obvious. It's a game. You play it with friends.
In my time in RPGs, I've come across some DMs who feel that players should feel privileged to experience their grand narrative. I've got some lovely angry rants about them, but I prefer ranting in person. So I'll address the opposite: I want to praise DMs who have fun.

I've had the great privilege of interacting occasionally with Phil Menard, the Chatty DM. He's embraced "Say Yes" gameplay with both hands, and I must confess: I find his games trippy and bizarre, but intensely interesting to read, and every indication I have is that they're immensely fun. He has a group of old (and some new, I imagine) friends around a table, and they have a great evening. Co-incidentally, they tell a story, roll some dice, and gain exp.

The more I've read of the DMs who are lauded in the present era of gaming, the more I'm realising that gaming is about energy levels and balance.

I've heard about quite a few games recently where DMs will halt gameplay to look up a rule, or will deny an option because it doesn't fit their mental model of a character. This works well in a boardgame, where the rules are written on the back of the box. Heck, even the more complex games like Munchkin can do this, because the rules are highly consistent and once you "get" them, you never need to look anything up.

Then you break out D&D. With dozens of rulebooks, hundreds of pages of general rules, and thousands of pages of overrides to those rule for things like race, class, feats, skills, powers and so on. It is simply mind-boggling to take in all those rules. And looking up the general rule, then each thing that might override it for a character requires ages.

I've learnt a great deal about RPGs over the last decade from Corvys. And probably the most important thing was to go "Meh, I don't know the rule and I'm too lazy to look it up right now (but I'll make a note to look it up after the game), I'll roll a dice. Even, your interpretation is right, odds, mine is." - it keeps game flow running. I wouldn't recommend it for Monopoly, but for D&D it's probably the only sane response.

But taking this even further - I adore players who straddle the border between "in the rules" and "not in the rules". The guy who shoots the chandelier so that it falls on the bad guy. The guy who builds a crazy Machine out of the equipment in his backpack and short-circuits the planned story completely. And I love him for two reasons:
1) Doing that is the damn surest way of getting players to connect, to role-play, to really engage with the fantasy and the game.
2) One of the reasons I love to DM is to stretch my creativity. By forcing me to think "out of the box" with them for a minute, these players do me a favour - they make me a better DM, and it can be immensely fun working out the details for the results of their endeavours.

But what I just described was the "Yes" part of "Yes, and...". The "and..." part is equally imperative to the philosophy. "Yes" means empowering players. Letting them know that they are more important to you and to the game than your story is. But "and..." is probably even more fun, and a wonderful way to jibe characters back. "And..." is your chance to introduce complications. If your pacing is off, "and..." can give you a nice chunk of time to breathe and let players relax a little.

Allow me to elaborate:
One of Corvys' players is the epitome of the out-of-the-box players. A great guy, his current character's goal in life is to build a giant adamantine war-suit (inspired by the titans of Warhammer 40k) and destroy an evil country whose government wronged him (hey, I *said* he was an out-of-the-box thinker!).
A DM who dismisses this as an insane scheme isn't necessarily doing something wrong - it could be dissonant to his style of gameplay, and I'm always loathe to tell anyone that they're "doing role-playing wrong" - but he's missing out on so much amazing fun!

"Yes, you can build your giant adamantine war-suit. And... to get the adamantine to do it, you'll need to engage with my story in this other way." So when another player at the table, say a combat-fan, begins to flag and get tired, annoyed or just uninterested, you can swing the plot to a combat one by making our warsuit player fight for his adamantine. The intrigue player is looking annoyed? Well, it turns out that the plans for the control portion of the warsuit are in this noble's vault, and you'll need to politic your way into his household to get them.

"Yes, and..." is one of the most powerful tools in a DM's bag of tricks. Never underestimate it, and you will find that it makes controlling the ebb and flow of energy around a table much easier.

Tuesday, April 12

Personality Based Campaign and Adventure Design

Today I was having a chat with a good friend, and we got on to the topic of stories. And I pointed out something that Corvys taught me years ago, but I feel can never be repeated often enough:

Stories are about people. And people are universal. A story about people can be set in high fantasy, or in a mystical modern urban setting, or ten thousand years in the future, and the concepts will still be the same. Sure, the greed in a person's heart may be for Phlebotonium instead of Adamantine, and the scale of domination may go from nation to world to galaxy to universe, but the underlying concepts will always be the same.

So when you're stuck for an adventure idea, it might be a good idea to do two things:

Firstly, take a step back and look at your adventure in the abstract. You probably have a few good personalities mixing it up - a few powerful NPCs (who hires you? who are your chief rivals, who are your enemies?), the PCs themselves and so on. Take a look at their desires, their fears, their needs and so on, and see if you can't intermingle them a bit. If NPCs want something abstract (political power), but can't get it directly, they'll try to acquire something that will eventually give them that. And that can bring them to rivalry or competition with another group, NPCs or PCs. Voila, conflict, and from conflict, drama, and from drama, adventure! Or if a powerful NPC wants something concrete (as opposed to the abstract), and it is not interesting to the players (say, a powerful wizard wants a spell, and the party are all fighters), you can quite handily make a common stepping stone for rivalry - a key to a horde of treasure.

Secondly, to take the old fiction and RPG writer's axiom - steal. Steal from anywhere and everywhere. Pick up a novel. Look at the underlying abstract desires and fears of the people involved. Change the McGuffin they want (political power in a monarchy) for something similar but different (advanced status in a guild).

See, on a slightly more mechanical level, a good model for human motivation is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. And it teaches us a lot about how to build compelling characters in RPGs. Of course, applying it universally is a bit insane: every minion and mook you face probably won't have a thought on this scale, but if a canny DM wants to flesh out an NPC a bit better, it always helps to consider where they're at in the hierarchy.

Take a look at most end-game villains for instance. Orcus doesn't care about safety! He's the biggest, baddest mother-lover in the valley, he fears no evil! Neither does Abaddon, or Caine. They're totally self-actualizing.

Comparatively, the average peasant in a hut somewhere is scrabbling for safety first, then food.

So let's play a little with the idea. Firstly, the idea works really well if you're messing with scale. What happens when a self-actualizing dragon interacts with starving peasants? A good dragon is defining itself, so it brings them food. Peasants freak out at the sight of the dragon, drop to "safety and security", and flee. How about an evil dragon?

Well, that's an interesting question. Alignment and personality have caused more arguments than I'd care to think about, but evil normally assumes some sort of greed and/or jealousy, which ties in to some sort of scarcity. An evil dragon would presumably actualize their evil by collecting stuff that is rare. Starving peasants may not necessarily interact with that need/desire well... but a little creativity can solve this. Perhaps a peasant has an heirloom. Perhaps the dragon needs something that a dragon can't get at - so he throws money at the peasants to steal for him. Now we can build an entire thieves guild adventure around stealing rare stuff for an evil dragon.

Esteem in the hierarchy is a particularly interesting one, because it tends to be vastly overplayed. Why does an evil person do what he does? He wants power, because he wants power. Who doesn't want power? He was once powerless, and now he just wants to kick ass. And it's great, because it's tropey, which means it's safe. Players "get" the need for esteem, which let's you all chill out if you want a nice, simple game. But if you prefer the intrigue of clashing personalities, the ability to play NPCs against each other, or just to flesh out a character more than "wants gold", I'd recommend thinking through the underlying needs and desires of your characters. It can make for some great adventure ideas, or even whole campaigns.