Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Building Structure into and out of Campaigns

Building structure in an rpg campaign often feels to me like wrestling an animal into a cage. You have to manage two tasks at once, getting the door open and keeping your grip on the beast. At the same time you don't want to apply too much force and hurt the animal or even break the cage. If you've played enough you've encountered the two ends of this spectrum-- the railroading campaign where the GM's vision of what's going to happen overrides any player decisions and the amorphous campaign where the GM refuses to provide any kind of structure, sense of purpose of even inciting incident.

I'm not saying those campaign styles can't be used well. Some horror campaigns build around that sense of existential dread-- where one battles against a kind of inevitability. Taken at its most literal, all fully Lovecraftian Campaigns ought to have a taste of that. The other style can work if the game bases its premise in power coming from creativity. Or maybe a game where discovery serves as the overriding theme-- like the classic amnesia game. But for the most part, campaigns that do have these structures aren't doing them with a high narrative purpose. Instead they demonstrate a GM's approach-- over-preparation, inflexibility, a feeling of competition with the players, defensiveness or OOH a lack of interest in the game, lack of preparation, or just uncertainty about the story to be told. There's a running joke in our groups about being able to tell when Barry had become tired or unsure of the campaign-- at that point the sessions would boil down to him simply going “So, what are you going to do?”. But there'd be nothing to do, no NPCs to talk to, no obvious mystery or project for us to work on, etc.

When I'm talking about structure here, I'm referring to ideas about narrative structure-- beginning, middle and end; first, second and third acts; rising tension; falling action; dénouement-- all that jazz. A GMs can plot out the course of a campaign, but unless they're really clever or using an iron clamp that plot outline will not survive contact with the PCs. In this, I'm talking about longer-term campaigns (let's say twelve sessions or more at a rough guess). I think the structural considerations and expectations differ for campaigns with fewer sessions. That's something I'll get into later.

One can imagine that sessions are chapters or scenes, but they often don't fall into those neat categories-- with moments bleeding over from one session to the next. That break in time (real world) often undercuts the kind of power that completeness might have had. Instinctively though I think a good GM knows that they need to end the night on a high point-- something interesting. A cliffhanger to make them come back for more the next session. That can be a problem at time, especially if you're running a game where the players are interacting with NPCs via email. The cliffhanger can cut off those interactions-- since the players are usually frozen at a place or time. If not, then usually there's some kind of mystery or problem involved. At that point, you want to handle those things at the table-- rather than allowing one player to investigate and then come back and parrot information to the group. While that might seem an easy way for the GM to move the game forward, it is eminently dissatisfying for the other players. Information and ideas passed in away-from-the-table emails should concentrate on the player building bonds with NPCs, learning deeper facts about them, exploring the environment, or working through their own subplots-- generally. What the Gumshoe system calls Core Clues-- elements that move the major plot forward significantly-- need to be done at the table. Again, there are many reasons for that, but most of them revolve around player needs and management (another topic I want to get back to).

That in mind I want to talk about one kind of structural element, I don't know if it might be better called a device-- shifts in the Status Quo. These represent a change in the expectations, the direction, maybe the roles of various characters. I think the classic one is the “You Are My Son,” moment from The Empire Strikes Back. That moment has/had power, but of course has been parodied extensively. I'll point to another one I recently saw-- from Buffy Season Six (Spoilers). For the first half of the season, we see the bungling Evil Trio. They're a comedic element in the show...but so far they're the only obvious continuing threat, beyond the awfulness of the real world. They're goofy recycled characters who will obviously get a humorous slap-down from the Scoobies at some point.

Then they kill a girl. We'll leave aside the whole “date-rape” undercurrent of that scene-- but when they 'accidentally' kill Warren's ex-girlfriend, that changes the whole complexion of their sub-plot. It is a pretty awful moment and undercuts the audiences expectations and perhaps their sympathy for these underdog villains.

I don't think you can/should always plan for these kinds of moments at a tabletop session. Big shocks and surprises (OMG She's a traitor!) can make wear out their power. They ought to arise naturally out of the plot but still feel fresh. But given that you have X number of players watching and talking about the situation, that's easier said than done. I think GMs have to keep their eyes open for those moments and consider how artificial/forced they'll feel versus what they can add to the story. A change in the Status Quo can be a nice session capper, versus a more obvious cliff-hanger.

This all comes back to the Libri Vidicos session last Friday where we had a couple of moments that I thought came across well at the table and fit into this category of Status Quo shifts. I don't want to say they were revolutionary, but I think they worked-- and that's useful for making me conscious of those elements. Libri Vidicos is an interesting campaign in that it does have two structural elements built into it. First, the campaign can be structured around school years-- with each year representing a distinct campaign arc. Second, the whole of the campaign can be built around a limited number of those years (in this case, five). Each year has its own focus and plot, but there's a larger story developing as well-- with pieces of that bigger puzzle coming out over time. Beyond that, the setting borrows heavily from the genre conventions of the Harry Potter/School-type story which most players know and are willing to buy into at the table.

A brief note on the situation and some tricks I used at the table before I (finally) get to my overhyped point. Part of this year's situation has involved a series of contests between the five houses of Libri Vidicos-- with the winners being given rewards...and possibly the losers suffering penalties. The set up for this week was that each house would participate in a scavenger hunt. To model this, I broke the items down into several categories. I figured half of the items would be easy to get, then a quarter of them they'd know how to get but it would take longer. They put one team working on each of those parts. I did a couple of scenes with some complications and with them coming across the other teams and interacting with them. I did some general tests to assess their progress. They decided to have one group remain back at the house, working on the remaining 'puzzler' items. I hadn't expected that, I figured everyone would go out and then they'd all join back together to figure out the odd ones. Their method ended up being more interesting. In between searcher teams scenes, I flipped back to the group at the house and doled out a portion of my remaining list. I broke that into three groups: a) “How Are We Going to Get That?” which had things like one of the Headmaster's Hats and a Pear (a fruit banned from the school); b) “WTF?” items which included abstract things like A Mother's Deceit and An Orphan Unremembered; c) the third group would represent more complicated riddles-- to model this I put together ten “What Am I?” riddles from the interwebs and handed them out. I don't think it broke the scene too much to have more classic riddles the players had to figure out standing in for what their PCs were experiencing.

In the middle of the search, however, I had a pretty dramatic incident occur. As Steve, Dave and his team were hunting around, they were stunned by a body dropping from one of the towers above them. It crashed down beside them, revealing a student who'd died on impact. Steve saw the another student on the walls above-- likely to be the person who'd pushed the student. The shock for them came that the dead/murdered student was in fact someone who'd they'd tangled with, Sebrador Wince. They'd run into him first at the end of the previous year-- he was the unpleasant brother of an npc they liked and had several run ins with another close npc friend. This year he'd be revealed to be part of one of the two mysterious student councils and they'd crossed paths with him a couple of times. He was one of the more clearly black and white bad guys of the game. His death startled some of the group, as much because they expected him to be around as a bad guy they'd have to deal with. The moment carried some surprised with it and broke some of their conceptions of the path forward. There was an interesting parallel with the group's experience as well, since in the previous semester they'd gone to great lengths to keep one npc they liked from going after and killing or being killed by another npc they liked. Finally the death of a student was a pretty shocking thing-- it had happened the year before, but off-stage. The age of the characters and the focus of the game means that death, and its consequences, gets treated pretty seriously by the group.

I pulled another change to the Status Quo at the end of the session. They have two rival houses, but one is more obviously and openly antagonistic to them (especially after some recent incidents)-- House Malbrect. They'd had some run ins with the 'leader' of the house members of their same year, Wixler de Wode. He was clearly a...how best to put this...an arrogant prick. But they'd also recently seen some of the reasons behind his attitudes-- in particular an insanely and insanely powerful mother who henpecked him. In any case, at the end of the session they noticed for the first time a shift in the social dynamics of House Malbrect. Since only the second years were present at a particular dinner, they saw that some of the people who'd been on the margins of the Malbrect social clique were now in, and Wixler de Wode wasn't sitting with the group. It is the equivalent of Malfoy being ostracized from House Slytherin (for HP fans). It was unexpected, but fit with some developments in the game. They players seemed genuinely surprised-- and there was a parallel with the shift in status of another clear villain (from alive to dead). We'll see what comes of this development. It did provide a nice bookend for the session and gave them questions to follow up on next time.

So generally-- and I always hate to say this because I have a hard time telling if all of the players had a good time-- so generally, I was pleased with the session. I think though, it is always worth a GM's time to reflect and note what went well at a session-- too often we're planning for the next one and don't take a few moments for analysis.

Tomorrow I'll talk about campaign length, combat mechanics, or possibly authors I like.


  1. I like your shifts in Status Quo from LV. They aren't expected elements, which is hard to do, if you don't know what to look for in the context. I think your ability to write fiction helps you with that element in your games. It's a needed element, but often misused element of fiction. "Oh noes, the bad guy is really the lead female's best friend."

    A majority of my shifts to Status Quo were easily seen by the players. When I picked up on the fact that they knew, and I convinced myself it was okay that they saw it coming, I would play it up and let them win big. When I didn't see it coming or I was mad that they caught on, I was a big, dumb jerk. Live, learn, rinse, repeat.

    As to building the structure and maintaining the structure of the game, all I can say is that I try to do it a little different each time and I read all I can on creative writing.

    I've swung from one end of your listed spectrum to the other. Sometimes it went well (railroading in a Vampire the Masquerade game), other times it didn't (too many open-ended games to count). I've found that if I'm not 100% into a game as a GM, it's very hard for me to make it work for me. Sometimes, it still worked for the players. That's a GM personality quirk and I'm sure not everyone suffers from it.

    I've found that books on writing movie screenplays, comics, tv screenplays, and theatre are often best for helping kick off and keep a game going. Books on writing fiction help, but if you don't know how to translate from fiction to gaming, you're out of luck. Most GMs, in my opinion, don't know how to make that jump. I probably fit in with the group that doesn't make the jump.

    My challenge with games has always been act 2, if you will. I've got the players interested, the game's afoot, I know what the potential endings could be, but now how do I get them there? When I've done it well, I've focused on writing scenes, not story arcs. "I need the PI investigators to talk to the retired sheriff about what he knows about yeti. Here are two ways for them to find out he knows something and how to get in touch with him."

    When I don't do that, I focus too much on the facts of the situation and that mucks things up. "Well, there's this one guy who knows a guy who knows about yeti. If the party doesn't follow this shoestring of a lead, they'll never get to the info." I'm horrible and do that far too often in games. I also tend to do this in games with more than 3 or 4 players.

    As to that Buffy use of shift, I thought it was horribly written and that it could have been achieved numerous other ways. I didn't hate what the characters did, I hated what the writers wrote.

  2. I agree with you on the problems inherent in the "second act"-- I think part of that lies in that it is the point at which the players can go furthest off the reservation from the original focus. Because, at least in my experience, it is about finding the paths and then paring them down to the one the group wants to follow, they can often get stuck just trying to clear away weeds. If the GM overgrows things they can get completely lost (from their point of view), they can just keep clearing in an OCD way and not move forward, or they can pour gasoline on the ground and light it up. We want freedom for the players, but at the same time we have to put up some signs directing them (or telling them to keep off the grass).

    I think the best thing I've read-- at least for storytelling structures is Robert McKee's STORY. I know he gets a bad rap sometimes, but it is probably the writing book that most actually felt useful to me.

    Player number, as you point out, drastically affects all of these other calculations.

    That's an interesting response to that Buffy moment. I had a very different reaction. It was an artifice, but I appreciated the artifice of it and how it played out there (and throughout that season). I think I have a similar reaction to some music-- for example Elvis Costello who sometimes gets wrapped up in the word play and the overall song suffers. I mind that less than some of his other fans.