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Lost in Old School D&D (and other stuff)Jens D.http://www.blogger.com/profile/18394303166081684904noreply@blogger.comBlogger441125
Updated: 1 week 2 days ago

Opinion: Feast of Legends (Fast Food goes Dice)

Fri, 10/04/2019 - 14:57
I saw this, saw everyone lose their shit and thought I'd throw in my 2 cents: prolific fast food chain Wendy's published a complete RPG with campaign, clocking out at 97 pages and is giving it away for free. This just up front, I'm having a blast right now. Genius. Beautiful. And rotten to the core ... I have opinions on that. Let's have at it.
Not a review ...
I've heard people state that this is a complete rule book and functioning. That is, to say the least, bullshit. No DM advice, no play examples and you only need to read the first page of the adventure/campaign to see that this is hollow and bad (also full of advertisement). That said, you could drop this into almost any D&D derivative of your choice (3e/Pathfinder/Basic Fantasy seem great fits) and it should work (no guaranties, though ... nobody says that this had seen testing for balance or what have you).
Might need some work, but could be fun. Maybe. Once. And you have to have experience DMing.
[source]So it looks nice and crisp. Proper layout, nice illustrations, inspiring maps. It is great at mimicking to be a complete game and yet, it is decidedly not. So, no, I'm not investing time in writing a proper review. This is an artifact and in its understanding on what makes a rpg tick just as deep as you'd expect from someone selling pressed sugar mixed with sad excuses for meat as food. Compared to proper RPG this is what a hamburger is to Beef Wellington.
As I said, it is an artifact, at best. Something that is nice to have. I'd buy this as a book, just to have it in my collection. A RPG it is not, though.
Here's why it's funny
This coincides with another article I've read today, something about why successful subcultures are doomed. It describes how innovation draws consumers and sociopaths until a subculture goes full bloom in mainstream and goes away to die afterwards. I don't necessarily agree with the piece (which should be discussed in another post, I guess), but it gets the basics right and this here is a great example what the process could manifest like. 
I admit, 'funny' is a bit of a stretch. However, it has to be obvious at this point that this is nothing else but a marketing ploy to get some (well deserved, imo) buzz. It's well played and it works. The reactions are as you would expect: people hate it, people embrace it and the more money oriented folks already offer twitch sessions. This draws flies like an old burger in an alley (pardon the bun).
Way more funny, though, is that they treat our hobby like publishers already do for years now. Nice to look at, some variation to well known ideas and a new-game-hype every other week. Just a buck, just a little kickstarter, just something to put into the shelf and forget. We brought this unto us, and we deserve it ... It is how those things tend to play out, and yet, there is an irony to it all.
Here's why it's not funny ...
It's not all fun and giggles, though. We not only have to see this for what it is (a fun promo for unhealthy food), we also have to understand that this is IN NO WAY, SHAPE OR FORM different to what D&D under Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro is: a vehicle to sell product. Sure, you don't have to buy a burger in real life to gain a bonus in the game, but the principles at work are very much the same (and junk food has been a huge part of the gaming experience, so ...).
Splat books, miniatures, editions, merchandise ... the rules are designed with selling additional material in mind. Arguably more so than actually being playable (high level gameplay from D&D 3e onward, if you need an example). D&D's triumphant parade into mainstream shows more and more how they need to divert from the original concepts that spawned our little hobby towards something more .... superficial. It becomes something like a theme park of an adventure compared to the real thing. The difference between reading War and Peace and getting it retold to you by a 3-year old ...
I need to stop. Either way, this is where it's at.
It's not all bad (some will say)
If someone enters the hobby because Wendy's gave it some exposure, it's all for the better. It also does show others that variations to D&D are possible, which is just as well, considering D&D becomes more and more synonymous for RPG in general (while changing and watering down significantly for mainstream appeal ... see above). In all that, the ad is a good (and bright) marker and reminder what mindless consumption will lead to.
That's the morale, if you need one. Big Money will have its way with RPGs, if we want that or not. And while it's certainly good for most people, as it offers new and exciting forms of mindless entertainment, it leaves those behind who took the whole thing a bit more seriously. As with all dying subcultures.
If you need to know what you can do about this, I'd say: built on that to be prepared for the decline. Innovation is what creates new spaces, as they say, and when the whole fad has run its course and D&D is nothing more than a theme park, those looking for more will find plenty. And that's the nice thought I want to close this with.

Guess what I'll have today [source]
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Good End, Part 1

Sun, 09/15/2019 - 14:22
It's rare these days that I wake up with time on my hands and have a blog post waiting at my fingertips. I still didn't for this, as I really should be writing something else today. However, it actually is a topic that occurred to me on several occasions this year alone and I guess I have an opinion on it. So the topic for today is: what makes a good end for stories and what are the machinations for it? Let's see where this will be going.
Lots of bad endings ...
The appliance of this topic for role playing games are obvious. However, where it really hit home for me the last couple of months was with a book that read really, really well for all its 1000 pages and fucked up really hard in the last 50 pages or so. I felt betrayed. It was the cruelest thing. Up until that end I would have recommended it to friends. How the author decided to end it, though, killed the whole experience for me.
Maybe I should go into an analysis of why I thought that ending was bad (or what book we are talking about), but for now, a specific example of something that is not universally hated as bad would make the argument anecdotal and that would be of no use here, right? You all know what I mean (if people are interested, I can share specifics in the comments, though).
That said, there are a bazillion examples in pop culture right now, most popular among them would be the last episodes of Game of Thrones. So bad, that millions of people signed a petition to re-shot that hot mess. Or the end they are producing for the original Star Wars saga. That would (arguably) be another great example (my guess is they'll kill it for good with The Rise of Skywalker). The third season of Glow also qualifies as it had NOTHING to do with the original show and was a waste of time so cringe-worthy, it cemented my decision to cancel my Netflix account for good.[source]My impression is that this is a trend for the worse right now. Maybe the decades-long pop cultural rehashing of the same old themes finally proves to be a downward spiral (who would have guessed?). Or the capitalist impulse to always produce new content actually forces creatives to start at ground-zero zeitgeist every time and hinders innovation in a way that popular stories stopped growing in mainstream and stagnation always carries the danger of running foul (or rather, nothing stagnates ever ... if it's not moving for the better, it starts moving for the worse).
Whatever the reason, it is a phenomenon worth analyzing or at least talking about. I get weary when I start seeing a new tv show and like it, because the end could ruin it for good. It's gotten so easy to produce a frame that makes content just, well, bingeable, that we not only created a new word for the process, we also started neglecting the messages stories transport and the end is always the tell in that regard.
Going by the above, there are several reasons for endings to be received as "bad" (or even where endings begin, for that matter) and all have the obvious common theme that the [drum roll] Suspension of Disbelief is disrupted to a degree, where the experience ends up being disappointing.
The good end no one liked
Let's start with the low hanging fruits, the movies or books or tv shows that run over long times and maybe even with lots of time between parts or seasons. Something you will see or read over long periods of time. Notable examples would be the Matrix trilogy, Star Wars Episodes 1 to 3, the third season of Twin Peaks or the last books of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books (originally a trilogy, the author went ahead and wrote a sequel 6 years later, where she tried to re-write the original and changed the tone significantly).
And people don't like it. Or rather, popular opinion is against them although, in those cases, the results aren't necessarily bad, just different. If something popular has too much time to fester in the pop cultural mindset, the perception of it changes. Or maybe ownership of the ideas changes. The artist gives something to the public and it keeps developing from there on.
So when the artist picks up a story years after it's initial release, he'll have to challenge the new beast that the story is with his own interpretation. There's a couple of popular examples where this worked once or twice (Terminator 2 and Aliens 2 come to mind), but usually, the result is hated and only reception over time will show if a sequel like that has merit or not.
In a sense, it means that the sequel is banned to the fringes again, away from mainstream, and people willing to invest the time to analyze and talk about a sequel like that, will dig for the nuggets and carry them back into mainstream consciousness.
Staring down mainstream since 1990  [source]The Episodes 1 to 3, for instance, weren't as bad as the initial reaction may have you believe, the Matrix trilogy is a coherent story, just not the one people wanted and Lynch's Twin Peaks is so far away from the mainstream perception of it, that it will take years to digest what he did in season 3 and Le Guin changed as a person and arguably didn't write a sequel but used the world of Earthsea instead to express her new world view, but reception was good nonetheless.
See, these works have merit, but you have to take a closer look, you have to work with the artist here. Some people think, that just because they consumed a work often enough that they can consume it without investing further thought, it must follow that sequels will be just as easily digestible. Those are, however, two different versions of reception. Maybe this deserves a little excursion ...
Consuming versus conscious reception
This is the most important distinction you will have in this argument. It's the two ends of a spectrum we succinctly call entertainment. It describes not the level of commitment (as people can get very committed about just brainless consumption), but the level of analysis you are willing to invest into something.
There is no judgment either, sometimes you just need to see a well-scripted show about baking. Done right, it is a form of meditation. Or you like just aspects of something, so you see it just for those bits. I've had run shows in the background, giving them maybe 20% attention while doing something else, just to get the whole picture.
However, when I sit down to see something and I like what I see, I tend to be on the other side of the spectrum. I will give it my full attention, not chatting, not  checking my mobile every ten seconds, I'm all over the thing: analyzing, connecting, interpreting.
The mindset with which you go into the experience is what will form your opinion on it (consciously or not). So if you go to see the next Tarantino with the expectation that you will get a rumination of Pulp Fiction, or if you go to see what Tarantino did next, makes worlds of a difference (and is a stigma many authors and writers have to overcome after their first success).
The problem is, we tend to fall more to the consumption side of the spectrum the more familiar we made ourselves with a certain oeuvre. That's where, in its extremes, fandom makes an entrance, that's where stories change ownership, in a sense. Music is another good example for this, with a way higher overturn. Once a musician is pinned down to be successful at a certain type of music, they'll have a hard time doing something else with the same success.
We need to be aware of this pattern to understand how reception works and what a response to something means in its context. Or rather, how the level of introspection and objectivity changes the perception of a work and therefor has to be judged within that spectrum. In other words, trust the critique that shows thought beyond the assumption what an artist should have done to succeed as he did with his previous work.
You don't even need to know where the artist is in his life right now or what person they are, you just have to accept that they most likely moved on and will express that in their work with the form they found to express themselves. Only then you can have an attempt at a proper interpretation if the work is successful or not (not commercially, though, that's a different story yet again ...). It's also a good way to create a position towards other opinions you may encounter.
Your perception will furthermore change over time, obviously, so there is  lot to be taken into account before getting a true grip on what works and what doesn't (for you and in general).
Okay, end of excursion. Where were we ...
The bad end
A bad end constitutes that independently of where you are at the spectrum described above, you end up being disappointed. Like, you could be just on the consumption side of the spectrum and it rubs you wrong for some reason. But then again, as you shift your perception towards a more conscious reception, you may find yourself coming to an understanding after all. If that still fails, however, you might have a bad ending on your hand, getting worse as others chime in to express the same opinion (because to a degree this is still about taste and level of cognition).
Ultimately, the general insight if something is bad (or good) is the result of multiple shared efforts over time, especially if the continued progress of a work is geared towards innovation instead of mirroring the success of a former work.
The question is, now, what we can learn from decades, nay, centuries of documented reception. Because we don't always have to start at the beginning, we can (should) stand on the shoulders of those who successfully took a closer look and shared their insights. We can see what went wrong and take a stab at guessing what went wrong and where. Considering all the above, we can also make fair assumptions as to what constitutes a bad ending in general and why.
I've named some popular examples at the beginning. We also see J. K. Rowling right now revisioning her past work for the worse. It's a good example how not knowing when to stop can also make for a bad ending.
Common themes here are (1) rewriting of the established work (in a sense the attempt of the artist to prevent his story from being changed or advanced by the public), (2) the ignorance of the established which then changes the experience significantly (a really common theme there is establishing characters as intelligent and then having them make very dumb decisions, another example would be ignoring established archetypes ... Han Solo, anyone?), and a third big mistake would be (3) to make the final message of a story a lie.
The third point is the most tricky one and the hardest to catch. It's those endings that just "don't ring true", as the saying goes. It's where the antagonist is beyond humanity and acts in a way that fits, for instance, an effort of propaganda (How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a sad example for this).
It's also when the Suspense of Disbelief is kicked to the curve and the end is not authentic in the way the story was set up. It's where external forces (like the studio or organisations) change the arc of a story for, say, commercial reasons (like, every cut down version of a film ever) or to fit a certain ideology (Disney had Rogues One changed and re-shot significantly after they felt that the original result had been too much of a war movie).
[source]The thing is, we grow up with stories, among them stories that are successful for thousands of years and there are reasons for that success. We recognize as a collective whole if something is worthy or not, and with more success the more time we have to take a look. You see right there the default line of failure: to be commercially successful you have to turn stories fast without paying too much for it.
Rather new, inexperienced writers, then seasoned but expensive writers, rather starting from scratch and hoping for a quick success than building and expanding something established with innovation ... I could go on. And if something works, it needs to stay the same, it needs to be "All Ages", as if it is a good thing that stories can't grow with us.
There are so many misconceptions how stories have to work just based on capitalist assumptions that favor a short success over a true success, it shaped whole industries, and we see it fail more and more often. As I said, over time those things will be recognized as lies (or half-truths, if you will).
But it gets worse. You have read so far, but it was all to set up this one, final point (I've already hinted towards it): we have become so well versed in making things easily consumable. The right filters, the right music, the right tone, the right people, a symphony of the recognizable REGARDLESS OF THE STORY BEING TOLD. And that's very dangerous. Look at Harry Potter (glorifying a superiour elite as the better people) or Glow (turning full woke) or 13 Reasons Why (glorifying mental illness) or Ready Player One (blatant nostalgia cash grab) or even the Marvel movies (idk ... empty and unproductive entertainment to print money, I guess). Just lean back and let it happen. It doesn't matter what we are telling you, just enjoy the how.
That's a really ugly trend and a lot of ugly endings for lots and lots of famous franchises. Right now everything that Disney touches seems to turn to shit, Netflix seems to be in trouble for spending shit-loads of money for inferiour quality, Doctor Who is losing its fanbase, mainstream comics have a hard time right now ... I could go on and on and it always comes down to bad storytelling and bad endings.
Anyway, I guess I made my point.
The good end
It's been a long time that I went off the rails for that much of text without having a clear picture of the pay-off it all could have. Of course we are still talking games here and how to make the endings in the stories we tell more satisfying. The whole tirade above is to be understood as an attempt to show the patterns that form opinions about stories as well as misconceptions about creating them in differentiation to what we can know and should use to tell stories. As I said before, we don't need to invent the wheel everytime.
So, with having all that on the table, we can talk about how to create good endings. Or better yet, how to bring a story to one of its potential conclusions ...
Holy shit, I don't know how to end this. The irony.
I thought this'd work out for sure ... [source]Actually, that part deserves a second post, because we need to come at this from another angle when talking about games. For one, with role playing games the ones creating the story are also the audience and what constitutes a bad end for a lot of people could work for a select group of friends. The focus shifts and with that the problems or how to address them.
This post, however, should help you recognizing bad endings and bad storytelling and how all that connects or how you stand towards all of it and conclusions you could draw from that. I guess that is something (if I actually managed it). If you have any thoughts on this, I'd be happy to hear them. Don't expect that second part very soon, I'm afraid. It'll take me a while.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How to manipulate narratives when telling stories in role playing games

Sat, 08/24/2019 - 12:33
Hey there. Long time no see ... This blog is not deserted, it's just really slow right now. So many things to do, like, working on getting my first role playing game published or writing short fiction. Most people don't realize, I think, how much time it actually takes to write a complete game from scratch. Anyway, I'm already digressing. What I want to talk about today connects loosely to the last post I had published here, but instead of talking about how to tact combat a bit differently, I'd like to shed some light on how to narrate stories. Or at least how I do it. This applies to all role playing games ...
The Basics
We all have a basic understanding of stories and how timing is the crucial element in everything we tell or listen to or look at. Even with totally random occurrences we tend to interpret our surroundings towards patterns we believe to recognize. We are also able to re-calibrate and update narratives as soon as new information manifests.
There is a beat to it, and even if you are not able to reproduce it, we all know how to recognize it. The reproducing part, however, is what's crucial when participating in the games we play, as all participants are helping to make the narrative manifest. Actually, they will do so if they want or not. I guess that is an important point to make: it's not that we are not contributing, it's how well we are contributing that we have to look at.Timing is everything ... [source]It does matter if you tell bad jokes all the time, if you constantly miss the beat or if you try to contribute, but constantly run in the wrong direction or disrupt the game ... Everything that happens at the table is part of the manifesting narrative. Everything. The lighting, that one player's smelling feet, the divorce story another player keeps telling. It all contributes and part of a DMs job is to navigate and even manipulate the flow of information input towards an engaging experience which then will lead to a memorable narrative (which then, in retrospective, will be called "the story").
That's why groups "cast" players or why people want to keep the chatter to a minimum or why breaks are necessary or why we can only play for so long before the game starts falling apart at the fringes. That's, ultimately, why DM's need tools and systems to enhance their games.
I've said it before and I'll most likely keep saying it: the way I see it, we use the rules of our games as the extension to what we communicate during the game and as described above, it all actually matters, the lingo and terms, the resolve mechanisms, it all helps shaping the game through altering the narrative. The art of writing proper rules, then, needs to include an awareness how telling engaging stories works and how to improve on that. It always boils down to this.
So that's the basics. Everyone contributes all the time, and we should aim to improve and manipulate the flow of information towards a better game.
How to Weave a Narrative
"Weaving" is the key analogy here, I think. Everything is always everywhere on hand, same goes for the moment at the table and it moves and changes constantly. The game gives you a rhythm to apply (good games do), so you have random encounters occurring either in intervals or when probable. Fights have structure to enhance the tension, there are some fail conditions and recognizable patterns to manipulate and extrapolate from on all levels (not only on a meta-level). You have campaign arcs, quest goals, advancement ... The list goes on.
Rules I like to add to the games I'm designing also generate abstract patterns to apply to the manifesting narrative. Tools to manipulate the flow or weave the narrative. I call them "narrative encounters", as in, not a creature or NPC the characters are encountering, but a twist in the story or an unexpected impulse to the narrative.
There are three, in my opinion, crucial benefits for a DM to extend control over the narrative to some form of external system: (1) it offers changes the DM might not have come up with on his own (as we get stuck easily in patterns we like to reproduce), (2) the sum of those impulses helps to conjure the overall impression of, say, genre and (3) it allows foreshadowing from seemingly random decisions happening at the table, since you not necessarily need to now where things are going and instead know what it's going to shape towards.
The Hero's Journey is a prime example of having a pattern like this, but I like to push it all a little further, actually, as I think it's so abstract that, while obviously working, still will reduce a game to just one pattern. It can be applied to the overall structure of a campaign. Easily and to great effect. But I like a bit more random in there. A bit more Tarantino or Pynchon, if you will. As I see it, our games tend to manifest as picaresque, naturally so due to the different sources contributing to the narrative.[source]I have talked about this on length here on the blog, actually (read it all here). What I didn't do, though, was actually talking about what it takes to make it work. It sure is implied, but (as we do so often) I assumed it being obvious. Part of the reason to write this here post is the realization that it needs a little more than "just" the theory and all the pieces.
For now, just remember: if you weave something, you don't only do sowith what you have, you also do it towards a goal. However, there is still more to that ...
Recognizing the Elements of Stories  The first thing we need to be aware of, is THE STAGE. It's the concepts that make the world the game is set in or the understanding and knowledge of the pieces that make a campaign. In a sense, it means narrowing down the expected outcomes of certain patterns (we have magic and no modern weaponry, people believe in fatalism, capitalist theories are banned or hard SF versus Space Opera ... stuff like that).
However, as a stage, it needs to be more concrete than that. It needs details about the area the characters are exploring, to a degree that the players can make informed decisions about their characters and so that the DM is in a position to have lots of moving pieces he can use without harming the Suspense of Disbelief (basically informing the players about possible negative outcomes or ramifications of actions, at least in general enough terms for them to have them believing in those pieces interfering as the narrative responses to their actions).
The Stage, in a sense, is the part of the sandbox around a group they can be aware of and the toys they can interact, with some horizon for their expectations.
THE CHARACTERS are the second big element of each story. The player start with the same process of choice eliminations when deciding what character they are playing. Characters come with certain patterns how they interact with their surroundings. When players make characters, they agree to apply those patterns by interpreting their character's actions towards them (not necessary to follow them, but to play with them in a way that is recognizable by all participants ... the cleric falling from grace, the fighter not willing to fight, stuff like that is within that realm of possibilities).
Each player has a pattern (or several, depending on the complexity of the characters) to contribute to the manifesting narrative as part of an ongoing dialogue, or rather, moderated argument what's going to happen next and why.
THE CHARACTERS are the tools with which the players are able to interact with THE STAGE. Their senses, if you will.
The third major element are the NARRATIVE IMPULSES a DM gives to all those interacting pieces. Some of it comes from the system (or his use of it), some of it comes from the hints he provides the characters with (as in "invitations to act"), some of it comes from moderating all the offerings the players make to interact (when he interprets their ideas to his concepts of how things work on THE STAGE), but the main part of his work is, imho, the twists he is able to weave into the story, the timing.

Be that bambus ... [source] The last crucial aspect is a BELIEVABLE REALM OF POSSIBILITIES, which means that players need to believe that their decisions have real impact. Some of that is carried by the rules (and in that regard, rules benefit from complexity in that they extent the REALM), but a huge part of that is actually down to a DMs flexibility to streamline all the impulses manifesting at any given moment during the game with his own NARRATIVE IMPULSES towards believable outcomes in the perceivable future of the STAGE the narrative is manifesting on. Not only what's happening, but (far more importantly, where it's happening towards.
If all the aforementioned are to a huge degree craft (system mastery, planned management of expectations and moderation) and knowledge about how we actually perceive stories (so we can manipulate them towards seeded expectations), that last one is where the art is. It's like Jazz. It's the ability to recognize and weave randomly emerging patterns into a cohesive and ongoing narrative that actually seems to go somewhere, all that on the fly. There's lots to talk about there.
The Taoist Approach: Doing Without Doing
Once things are set into motion, once players start interacting with their narrative surroundings, a DM is best advised to hold back and react spontaneously as the game dictates and offers opportunities. If he has no agenda beyond what is already established and a loose idea how it might change in the immediate future, he'll have it easier to recognize the patterns as they emerge. It puts him in a position where he can react instead of needing to act all the time to keep the game afloat. That's what "Doing Without Doing" means.
In a sense it means the DM is leaning back and observing what is happening, always only adjusting the game towards the established and letting the rest run its course until an opportunity arises to enhance the game in another direction. A bit like fishing, if you will.

It's all about opportunity ... [source]As established above, part of being able to maintain this state, is having an idea where the pattern is going to. Not in a concrete way, but as an abstract narrative encounter area the game is gearing towards. How about an example: betrayal. To have a betrayal, it needs a situation where someone is getting betrayed. The Narrative Generator linked to above will also deliver genre-appropriate agents for the betrayal or vague reasons for it. Conditions, in a way, that need to be met to make the narrative encounter manifest.
So the DM takes his time, letting the game flow, manipulating it gently towards a situation where the betrayal could be placed most effectively. It also doesn't mean that the characters need to be betrayed, it can mean that they hear a story about someone being betrayed, get an opportunity to intervene with a betrayal or even, that they need to betray someone to reach a goal. Just as the pattern emerges and opportunity dictates.
In my games, I have at least 3 such narrative encounters prepared for each session. How it all manifests is the campaign log. The important bit is to keep this as vague as possible to be able to apply it to what is actually happening at the table. In that regard, it doesn't matter what the characters are doing, betrayal will be part of the narrative in the immediate future (just like encountering goblins would be with a random monster encounter). It's all the characters' decisions and the DMs spontaneous reaction to it, guided by some vaguely predetermined shifts in the narrative that are accepted within the realm of possibility.
The amount of tact and timing you are able to put into this determines to a huge degree the quality of the narrative that is manifesting at the table and the stories being told about it afterwards. 
The Limits of Control
As outlined above, I firmly believe that we don't need a grand narrative. Not in a sense that a DM needs to know he concrete outlines of a campaign (it is a matter of debate if something like this is even possible without a great deal of manipulation towards what the players want ...). There are limits to the control a DM can (or should) have over the manifesting narrative.

The course is the campaign, the trainer is the DM. the players ... [source]DMs define a realm of possibility, players decide how they interact within that, DM reacts to that. Being too specific in that regard will result in a (too) simple win/fail mechanic and the mindset coming along with that. It is bound to be disappointing.

Accepting those limits can open up the game for the DM in a way that has him in a spot where he can play as well. Let's go with the betrayal above and say the DM has a specific NPC in mind that will betray the characters, but they never interact with that NPC again for some reason or another. The DM is now in a situation where he created something he's not able to use unless he forces it upon the characters for some reason.

An easy out here would be to have someone tell the characters a story about that character betraying someone else, which might at least have the characters thinking they dodged a bullet there. However, that's not the point. It rather should illustrate how dependent a DM is on the course of action the players decide on and how prepared he is to deal with it. Or better: where his focus lay in preparation.

The limits of control for a DM are with the specific outcomes of the narrative impulses over multiple instances. If you think something along the lines of:
 "A needs to happen, so B can happen and I can hit them with C, gearing the game towards G ..."you are two steps ahead too far, because what will always happen is more along the lines of:
"X will happen and you have A to gear it towards. which will result in XAY and you having a B to navigate towards, which will have, of course, the result of XAYB and you having C already in sight, so ..."ABC and so on is what you have control over. They are impulses, which is what has us coming full circle to the point I made in the beginning, as those impulses will have an impact on the narrative. They inform genre and if that realm of possibilities is chosen well, the sum of the possible results will give you your Grand and Epic Narrative! The play reports I'm writing here can be examples of that, I think. If nothing else, the stories described there are completely a result of what I described above (you want two good examples, check this one out and this one).

And, done ...

That's it, folks. I'm of the opinion that we need to go places with our designs that accomodate A DMs work where it really counts. It's not all intuitive, although it can be, but most of all, needs to be with most games since that kind of support is missing. It can be explained how we tell better stories in our games. And if we are able to explain it properly, other can learn it as well and get beter at it.

I hope I'm getting closer to offer some valuable insight into how we need to push a little harder when exploring what the games we play actually do and how to make that better. It's one area where we still can innovate, in my opinion.

I'll leave it at that, for now. I get a feeling that I circle the same ideas for some time now (for the simple reason that I need answers for the games I write) and I'm not sure that it still makes for endearing reading anymore. One realisation of late I had is that  might have to change the direction of the blog somewhat away from writing about my ideas of design and more towards something more, idk, easily digestible?

I have an idea for that as well ... We'll see if I can pull it of. I have to chose wisely what I have to write for the rest of the year, as it already shapes up to be a busy couple of months. However, if things go as planned, you'll have a lot more to read in another format in a couple of months. Until then, friends and neighbours.

Soon ...

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

"This is a Fight! ... Isn't it?" (a deconstruction of combat - design post)

Thu, 06/27/2019 - 17:08
It's a declared goal of this blog to post at least once a month. Well, I tried. However, I'm not just barging in right now to arbitrarily cast "Wall of Text" and be gone again. No. Main reason for me sitting down only now, at the last days of June, was research. Believe it or not. I'm working on a combat system for that dystopian rpg I'm currently almost-finished-writing, and here's how I went at it.
RPG combat is too structured ...
... and that's a bad thing. And a good thing. Sometimes it's ugly. Let me tell you why. First of all, it's just not called into question that much why fights have to be structured. You hit, the orc hits, some have protection, some get hurt, some get lucky, some die. All in order, maybe with some tactics, sometimes with light rules, sometimes heavy on the fighting rules.
Don't get me wrong, it's mainly a good thing, imo. However, this war-game based understanding of what a skirmish is fits well in most role-playing games, for that's the stories you want to tell. In D&D the characters go into combat ready for it (at least on the character sheet, right?). The game is more or less build around a war-game engine and the trappings changed, even grew over time, but so did the board game aspects that are in the DNA of that first game.
H. G. Wells in action ... those roots are deep [source]What it also does is telling a specific set of stories. And that's the limitation. It's where combat in a game can turn ugly or even bad. I've talked in other posts about how detailed power curves in rpgs practically force specific power structures on the worlds they emulate. If you can play a level 36 half-god, able to kill some old dragon in a fair one-on-one, the world around that character needs to be layered like that.
A king just can't (shouldn't?) be level 1 or a level 10 character could just force his will into the story, maybe killing that king for shits and giggles. There are consequences on stories for detailed rules like that, and to a degree those rules will dictate the rhythm of the game. This will mostly be felt on higher levels, though. It's probably the reason why many regard D&D levels 1 to 8 as the "sweet spot" as far as range goes (might vary a bit between editions).
Anyway, I digress ... Rules give rhythm to a game. If it's heavy on the combat rules, it's what will have lots of table-time over a course of a campaign. More so on higher levels, and badly if those consequences aren't taken into account for high-level games. Not only a problem D&D has, btw, look no further than WoD for problems with high level characters. I'm sure there's more.
Of course there's ways to solve those problems. The D&D Rules Cyclopedia, for instance, (the gold standard, if you ask me), shifts gears from adventurer to noble to legend to god, all playing out differently. I'd argue that's good design, because it takes into consideration the power curve of the game. The stories told in the D&D RC (if you go the distance) change as the rhythm of the system changes. This is because of the combat system (and to equal part because of magic, I should add, which is mostly written around combat, so ...).
That basic war-game structure echoes through almost all role-playing games. When there's a call for initiative, everyone knows the jig is up. If that's not the kind of story you want to tell, if you want to, say, copy patterns we know from action movies, if you want chaos and arbitrariness and tension, you have to change that rhythm significantly.
The boardgame-kind of abstraction [source]What stories? (patterns, not structures)
The first step towards this would be to stop seeing combat as an isolated incident, as something that needs to be fenced in a specific set of rules or a separate ritual with a specific set of terms attached to it.
The next step would be to integrate it into the system in a way that allows for enough detail to honor the implications and enough abstraction to make it manifest naturally in every possible narrative scenario the game on hand has. It needs to appear as part of the story as it would in a noir novel or a thriller.
This is about direct consequences. If characters are prepared and capable, the outcome of the confrontation should not only be just that, it should enhance and celebrate that. If they are in over their heads, it's that what the game should enhance.
We are talking the bar scene in Inglorious Basterds here or the first 40 minutes of Sicario. It's also when the hero fights his way through some extras in no time, only to face a tough one at the end. Both scenes need equal spotlights as well as feel different without having the system bog it all down too much or shift tone in a way that it doesn't feel cohesive anymore.
There is a flow in good action movies that constantly builds and releases in patterns that relate to the story, not to a template (although those exist as well). People are less keen on stories that get too formulaic. Of course, that's a bit different in games. When having an active roll in a story that includes random results, the average outcome of several rolls is what lets a character's abilities make manifest*. That needs to be considered and addressed (which can be done with the level of abstraction, but more on that later).
Before I came up with anything myself, I checked out what other games did in that regard (special shout-out to the mewe-group for their suggestions!)
Random Kung Fu pic ... [source]What's out there (just examples, not a list)
The idea is to look for as long at games as it takes to get an idea what I will need for the game I'm writing. Took me longer than I expected and I found more games that I like enough to regret never playing them.
One more caveat, though. Lots and lots of games offer nuance to the same old formula. No initiative, group initiative, one roll for attack and damage ... variations like that. When all is said and done, though, they really don't stray far from it. It's merely house-rules to the established. Nothing wrong with that, but also not relevant for this.
There's also a huge array of skill-heavy role playing games (CoC and the like) that either tend towards either D&D or oWoD, so I consider them covered as described below. If you know any game that strays from anything I describe here, please give it a shout-out in the comments. I'd love to check it out ...
Okay, let's have a look at some staples and some exotics:DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (all editions and clones) - We've talked about that above already. Strong templates, war-game roots, very specific rhythm. The only thing to add would be that newer editions try to expand the "sweet spot" described above and force the game into a ever more complex variant of the original formula on higher levels. While making the lower level a computer game like experience and short-term fun (like a boardgame would), it's not very successful to encourage long-term or campaign play.
Old WORLD OF DARKNESS - Didn't check out what happened with the newer editions. The oWoD games where the first popular example of having a higher level of abstraction opening a system successfully towards the stories the game wants to tell. While combat still followed established structures, it offered different patterns to get to results and stayed vague (as well as consistent) enough with its terminology and how it all connected, that allowed an easy transfer between system and drama. In other words, it was easier to do a character's individual choices to solve conflict compared to older games.
UPWIND RPG (cards) - The GM (mostly) offers "plays" if something is at stake, same is true for combat. It can be resolved in broad strokes or very detailed, just as the narrative manifests and the involved parties see fit. Plays will mostly involve 1 player and the GM (pretty sure the others can chime in, but not to great effect, as I read it), and it should be possible to have a detailed skirmish that way, even with several players having several plays. However, it would burn through cards quick and since card decks are "set" in a way rolling the dice aren't, players might end up less welcome cards if they want to or not. This encourages less detailed play, I'd say, as players like to plan with the cards they have to get things done ... Interesting system, just not what I'm looking for.
AMBER Diceless - Combat here is about finding out if your enemy is superior or inferior to you and how to go about it. Combat is a narrative and has no strict scheme like rounds or even initiative. In a sense, players are observing, analyzing and reacting as the narrative manifests. Characters can only die if they are in over their heads and usually get an opportunity to avoid a fate like that or even chose it. Not what I'm looking for, but it most certainly works. It's basically the other extreme to using structures as described above. The story is the thing here, not so much the game.
TUNNELS & TROLLS - T&T is notable for its very abstract and light combat system. It was designed in direct contrast to D&D and its war-gaming roots (quite early as well). In short, both sides roll and the losing side gets the difference to the winning side's result as damage. Since the hit points a monster has defines the dice it can use to attack, monsters will get weaker as they get hit. There are rules for armor and "spite damage" (where the winning side gets damage as well), but that's about as concrete as it gets. No movement and just a little maneuvering, the rest is played as it makes sense. It all evolved a bit from earlier editions, but mostly by adding detail to the existing system. A good example what can be done by thinking out of the box.Let's leave it at that. There is obviously way more games out there than that, but there also isn't that much variety. Most of that might be due to the fact that it works. You can scale the level of detail somewhat, it's intuitive and it allows for tinkering as per taste. Some games do away with combat as much as possible, because they tell different stories (you could argue that they just shift the focus in the system from combat to something else).
What I haven't seen a lot is attempts to change the rhythm in a way that it cohesively allows an established tension to erupt brutally and as the story dictates, while considering that this needs to work within improvisation. That is, it needs to work unplanned and as the result of the system interacting with the players and the narrative ... Okay, okay. Wait a minute. You've read so far. Here, have a funny pic before we move on:Her had it coming ... [source]Crazy talk, you say? Hold my beer ...
The greatest and most memorable fight scenes are all about drama, not about the action, is what they tell screenwriters (a very interesting and inspiring article about screenwriting). I like that a lot. Those meaningful escalations are build over time and when they bloom, it is recognized. Normally something like this is arguably in the realm of a good DMs narrative power (or writer or director). It doesn't need a system, if the participants are able to produce that kind of tension as they manifest the narrative and interpret the dice results.
However (you probably guessed), I think a system should be able to build that kind of tension and allow the abstract room to apply it to whatever interpretation the players and the DM can come up with.
Here is the thing: we intuitively know the patterns necessary to evoke certain reactions. The Big Guy in the crowd with the scars and the Big Gun everyone else is shying away from? That's a clear set-up for a tougher opponent. If the characters recognize him from somewhere or he shouts at them something he did to them, for instance, like "I was the one that killed your wife! Hahahahah!!" or if he's about to do something that might escalate the situation further (like killing innocents or destroying something or ...), you'll load that scene further. Every bit helps to make it more intense.
For a system to offer that kind of output, you need to go away from seeing non-player characters as single entities, but as part of a potential instead (a bit like Tunnels & Trolls does, actually). How this potential is build up is totally individual as the story manifests. The system sets the markers, like "something is stolen" or "someone threatens the neighborhood" and keeps track of it, like "you get accused as the thief" or "people get beat up and there is corruption".
All that can be done randomly, and if done on a level abstract enough, it can be applied to every situation within the stories a game might want to tell. Actually, it'll influence those stories towards specific outcomes an occurrences you'd expect for a genre or setting by giving directions, not results. Oracles, if you will (if you've been reading this blog for any amount of time, you will have heard some of those ideas already).
There you have it, then, patterns and opportunities for escalation and hinting and interpretation, randomly created and with natural "hot spots" where the stakes are somewhat established, but also offer room for surprises as the story shifts from narrative encounter to narrative encounter and the reactions to that.
That's not all, but then we are done
It needs one more dimension to make it work properly, though, and that would be a bigger disconnect between player and character. An abstraction not only how hurt a character is, but (in this case) if the character actually is in the mood to fight or even pumped and eager for some of that ultra-violence.
Think about it. We monitor characters all the time for how damaged they are or how well equipped and there are some more or less established systems around for seeing if a character is hungry or thirsty or if it's too hot or cold. We already take those things into account when we decide how to play the character. Same is true for the never changing, but still relevant ability scores. If your character isn't strong, you will try to avoid things that involve using that ability score. It comes natural.
So a logical step would be to install a system that can have a character being very angry as well as not in the mood. Having characters getting frustrated or stressed will have players react to that and it all becomes part of the story just out of pure necessity. That's the beauty of having output like that come through the system: it will give impulses otherwise easily forgotten or neglected. Giving them importance is giving them power over the narrative and that is a great source of tension.
And that's where I'm at. It would be a post just as long as this one to go into detail how this will be done in that game I'm writing, but I can say that we gave the beta a test-run and it is promising. I'll have to write more about this soon, but I hope I was able to illustrate the distinctions I saw and how I addressed the problems thereof.
As always, thoughts and impressions on the ideas formulated above are very welcome here or wherever I share this.
In other news, the first draft for my next publication is almost done, we are already working on a layout and art is on its way ... You know what? Have a tease of some interior art by Daniel Petri (who can be found here):
Copyright by Daniel Petri [hompage]
* Incidentally this is the weakest point of light systems with very few rolls allowing for a limited assortment of results: success conditions have a probability of occurring, but there is a number of rolls necessary to reflect said probability in a way that it is recognizable as good or bad probability. So limiting rolls and success conditions will have less controllable outcomes and discourage long term play.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs