Sunday, May 31, 2009


Linkdump Today--

I'm a big fan of Modest Mouse, from early to late. I liked their last album quite a bit, through Sherri prefers the one before. They have a bizarre sensibility and the lead singer possesses a distinctive voice. I'd like to see more of them on Rock Band. "Float On" was an obvious choice and I think there's more and better songs they could have up there. Anyway they have a new album coming up and an advance video for one of the songs. Bonus points if you can name the Kurosawa film they're borrowing images from.

Here's a nice retrospective on Thief: The Dark Project, one of the great PC games. I had a hard time getting through the game itself, but I have fond memories of it-- along with System Shock 2, Half-Life and Deus Ex I had some of my favorite PC first-person experiences here.

An interesting site for people doing DTP or just trying to put together game handout and things-- a collection of public domain images from old books.

The classic old-school rpg game has players delving into caverns and caves. I'm not a geologist so I hardly take into consideration scale in those things. However, this recent discovery kind of brought me some perspective-- both for how absurd some of the cave layouts in games are and how enormous they actually can be in real life.

The Literal Version of "Total Eclipse of the Heart", if you haven't seen it already.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Maps of the Games: Conceptual Differences in Play

I love maps, as I may have mentioned before. I still have the world atlas I received in grade school. We got National Geographic for many years-- but I hardly read the articles. Instead I'd look at the maps. If they had a nice big pull out map I'd be happy. I'd check fantasy novels to see if they had maps-- part of what drove me to read the John Carter novels even though they were pretty bad. I recall fondly the Hyborean maps of Conan, the strange metaphorical roadmap of The Phantom Tollbooth, and even a strange sketch map of Yoknapatawpha County from Faulkner. My mom loved Faulkner and we had a prized set of paperbacks of his books in the front room as long as I could remember.

I had an Atlas of Fantasy for as long as I could remember-- I bought it I think two or three different times. My sister got a map of Middle Earth in a frame as a gift from a friend-- that person had hand drawn it from references. I remember a child's version of A Pilgrim's Progress, which I didn't understand, but loved for the bizarre map. Of course various games had great maps-- I hated TSR's method of hex mapping which made everything ugly and cluttered. I think if I'd had some mind to it, I might have done geography or cartography as a pursuit-- but I've never been able to draw very well and I didn't understand the field of geography could have larger social implications until much later.

I'm not one for meditation or formal exercises, but I will admits I have one trick I fall back on when I'm trying to relax, fall asleep, or pass time. I usually do a visualization exercise for some place I've been. I had a paper route for several years and I used to be able to chart in my mind not just that route, but also the layout of all of the houses on those blocks. Generally, I'll try to imagine myself walking in a particular building, home or area-- trying to get the general spatial relations in my head. The details aren't as important as the larger context of the space itself. I think that's part of why I have some affection for Las Vegas-- all of the buildings there have a strange enormous configuration. They baffled me even as I went around them and they form a labyrinth in my mind-- I can't quite fit all of the connections together.

Anyway, this relates to some things I've been thinking about in terms of rpgs. Kaiju picked me up a book from my wishlist called Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. He hits on a number of topics-- structure, intention, visualization, interaction for example-- and their relation to a narrative. I think the most obvious and interesting point of his discussion is that we each draw vastly different maps of experiences. I can't lay claim to any real grasp of Literary Criticism theory, but I am familiar with the basic idea of one approach called Reader Response. Stanley Fish wrote the the seminal book in this theory Is There a Text in this Class? He suggests that each reader interprets the experience of a text (in the broadest sense) differently, and that those readings derive from membership in “interpretive communities.” I don't know about the later, but the idea of the former and focusing some analysis on those varying readings strikes me as worth following up on.

The bottom line here being: each player in an rpg ends up with a very personal sense and reading of the course and form of a game. Yet at the same time, they're directly interacting with both the authority and creator of that text, in the form of the gamemaster, and with competing interpretive communities, in the form of other players. In this case I'm not talking about the discussion and back and forth between players about what to do next, the solution to a problem, or combat tactics. Rather the meta and often unstated sense of how a game text appears in one's mind, especially in retrospect-- who is the main character, what are the themes, what is the dramatic pattern...the bigger questions.

In some ways, the most interesting things arise from misreadings-- in the sense that the GM provides an incomplete text. It has to be incomplete by virtue of the player character's having their own volition. The GM cannot know with certainty how the players will react. Misreadings, contradictions, the unexpected, changes, all of these are juncture points between the texts, or maps, in the GM's mind and the player's. In some ways it would be interesting to have players write some kind of game summary mid-stream-- but I'm not sure that would really delve into things. We're too aware of the conventions of the back of a book cover-- unless perhaps you had them write that up with the idea that the book would actually be centered around their character. That might be a useful exercise.

But to circle around to my main point-- differing perceptions and expectations. I think the imaginings and visualizations of a game text vary strongly between players-- even in terms of what the map depicts. You could chart of map of the journey of the game chronologically, from beginning to end. Or you might focus on the geography of a place. Or on the interactions of plots. Or on the relations of people. Of course, I don't think players see things in these literal forms, but I do think they have a kind of perception that shapes their behavior, reactions and even how they look back on things which have happened before in the game.

And I think some player displeasure arises when the map they have in their head doesn't match up with the incidents at the table. Again we hit on expectations. There's the unusual stage here in that the GM is describing a world the players have no real experience with-- their interactions are colored heavily by the GM's words and their own expectations. There are exceptions-- obviously if you're running in an established setting (a historical period, a set and known fantasy universe, a real world place) then the player draws on some of that knowledge and the GM can make some assumptions about what the player knows. But that can also be a bad thing, especially if the GM's making changes-- at what point does the player's knowledge break down? There also the case of players having played within a particular campaign world before-- since I've run quite a bit in the same setting, I've seen this. How do you balance the knowledge and mental maps of previous players with those of new players? Or even more to the point-- I'm sure players come into my games generally with a picture of the play and structure of my game. I know when I play with a new GM OOH, I'm trying to get a sense of his play style-- what are the limits? What's the theme? Is there a theme? Should I pencil in this place, this point or event on my mental map-- is it a signpost or is it just a throwaway thing? I'm trying to assay the geography of the survey the realm of play.

Now, I want to tie that into something the rpg writer Robin Laws said on his LJ yesterday. He was talking about Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane character, and his divided self. And I apologize for the extensive quotation, but I think it is worth it:

Kane is an interesting iconic hero in that Howard repeatedly describes him as having a dual nature. The exact meaning of this split drifts a little from story to story. To the extent that he examines his actions at all, he believes himself to be a simple man obedient to Puritan virtues. His true nature, explains the omniscient narrator, is a reckless, obsessive pursuer of adventure. This notion of the divided self is a surprisingly sophisticated one for a blood and thunder pulp hero.

On first thought, this seemed to me to be something we don’t often see in roleplaying. People create simple characters and attempt to stick to a clear conception of what they will and won’t do. But in fact we see it all the time—though rarely intentionally. Players often describe their PCs as having one set of motivations, and perceive them according to the assertions they make about them. Yet to the GM and everyone else at the table, who see only the character’s actions, the PC appears to be quite a different person. Most often, the self-conception is nobler than the actuality.

You could look at this as a bug: the player isn’t living up to the markers he set down when creating the character. In practice, though, it adds layers, and thus reality, to the character. He becomes as complicated and self-contradictory as a real person.

This dynamic, in which an unconscious tension between the author’s intention and result adds interest to the story, may be unique to roleplaying. Kane’s divided self because Howard meant to make him that way. In fiction an author’s lack of insight into his characters never ends well.

I think one thing to consider then, is the road map we as players give to the other players and to the GM. The difference between how we picture the character in our mind versus how they actually appear to other players. I had a problem with this in one of Derek's games, where I had a conception in my head, but my play and communication with the others didn't match this. I recall Barry's character Basho, and that of a few others in the past, where their characters did things, adopted attitudes, and spoke in ways that I could only read as being deliberately obnoxious, stupidly over angsty, petulant and so on. However, in talking with the players, it became clear that they didn't self-describe themselves as this. But more importantly, they didn't read that behavior as coming off like that. I think that's a difficult and important job for the GM-- trying to get a sense of how a character pictures themselves and then reconciling that with how they actually play at the table.

I'm over my limit, but I may come back to this. I'd like to talk about character reads on groups (like Scott and I and our continuing debate on the Elves), why I don't run people's characters when they're not there, overprotectiveness of a conception versus uncaring play, bodyswitching, finding ways to love the PCs, and considerations of parody. Perhaps I'll even provide specific examples and signpoints rather than this airy meta-talk.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Wizard Takes An Important Phone Call

The power of Lowell compels you.

Me circa 1978-- I know by this point I'd been playing DnD. The year before or after this I went as a Shambling Mound from the AD&D Monster Manual...with a ray gun. I remember also I had a Wizard's staff to to with this-- a long dowel rod painted white with a colored tip that ended up looking more like a seeing-eye cane than anything else.

I'm been going through old pictures and slides that survived the fire, trying to scan things. I've also been trying to cement in my mind the date when Cat and I first got DnD. Actually Cat did and I just trailed along for the ride for a time. My Dad had been working up at Ann Arbor IIRC and picked up a copy of the original small three book set for my sister. I'm guessing Christmas of '76-- but I could be wrong. He also bought her a copy of the old Starship Troopers Avalon Hill boardgame. That's one of those monster wargames that I wouldn't try even now. But we got into rpgs, with things like Metamorphosis Alpha, Empire of the Petal Throne and Monsters, Monsters! coming soon after.

That's one from my 1981 birthday party-- you can see the classic AD&D module I'm running from there: C1--The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan with an Erol Otus cover. Later editions used a multi-colored cover image. You can also see the homemade DM's screen, with relevant charts photocopied out and taped to a piece of cardboard. To my left you can see my figurine box which I had for many, many years. I think there's a basilisk and a Storm Giant sitting out. I liked this module, as it had removable handouts. I also put everyone's character sheets into envelopes ahead of time to let them choose. The year before this IIRC, my sister ran a game for my birthday party with amazing and elaborate maps. I was trying to capture that, though I was only 12. I think it is fair to say I've been running/playing pretty continuously for 30+ years.

So going through the slides has been a little melancholy-- or at least emotionally tiring. I'm fighting off some GM burnout as well, but that's another story. Mostly it is just weird seeing all of this stuff-- the various toys and games I had growing up, in part, that I took for granted. Sherri's family, for example, had little in the way of that. And I know other friends I have had tight budgets growing up. It bothers me now to see all that waste a little-- or maybe it bothers me that I didn't appreciate what I had as much as I should have.

Anyway this is a picture of me sitting in my dad's study. That was, and I think Cat would agree, the most interesting room in the house. It was downstairs off the living room, without a door. From time to time my dad would hang a curtain there to separate it from the rest of the house. At some point he put up corkboard over the entire east wall to put up clippings and such. Between that and the heavy curtains, the room was always a little darker than the rest of the house. I remember he had a characteriture of himself sketch by someone always posted up. That and a newspaper clipping of Sophia Loren's face, a picture of Janis Joplin, and an odd clipped out photo from McCabe and Mrs. Miller. There'd be other papers and maps up there as well and I'd go in to look at them from time to time.

The room also had a strange narrow closet that had a locked door and a little window out. The door came from the time that had been the back of the house, before the back had been added on. We knew where the door went (to the top of the basement steps) but it always seemed a little odd. As well, because the cloest had been built under the stairs, the room narrowed down to a sharp corner which made it an attractive hiding place. It stank of moth balls, on the other hand.

My dad had a big wide desk and lots of book shelves. They'd originally been stack shelves but one year he put up hanging ones. One night while Cat and I watched TV we heard an explosion downstairs. We freaked out until my parents came home-- when we discovered that he'd missed a couple of the studs in the walls and the entire thing had come down. He had a lot of books.

The office always smelled of his pipe-- mostly the rich cherry smoke smell. That one stuck more than the others. He had a copper change bowl with sharp edges that my sister and I would thieve nickels and dimes out of. He had a Tijuana mounted frog standing at a microphone that I loved staring at and playing with. That somebody had nailed the frog's feet to the base always freaked me out. I'd imagine they'd done that while it was still alive or that maybe it has some religious meaning-- I mean Christ had feet nails, right?

In the picture you can just see the plastic pencil caddy sitting on his desk too. It was that kind of fake cherry plastic and spun around. Pens would leak down into the compartments, creating little black and blue tacky spots where stray paper clips would become permanently stuck. It attached dust, I remember that, and he only ever had a few pens in it-- the rest would end up tossed around the desk or the room. I loved that lamp too-- you could move it and make a really satisfying sound from the springs-- when I saw the first Star Trek film, I assumed that's how they'd made the V'ger noises that overwhelmed everything. I also remember his tobacco jar-- heavy and made of cut green glass. It had a wooden top with some arcane pin thing underneath it-- I'm still not sure what that was for. You'd open it up and you could really smell the tobacco.

And of course there were the books. I'd look through them all the time. He had a book on Camelot that was disappointing because it was about the JFK administration rather than King Arthur. And he had magazines and other stuff there-- including Playboys hidden away. But mostly I think we loved it because it was kind of a cool, very personal room. And usually very messy which I can use as an excuse for why I'm so messy today.

Lastly, the Wizard takes an important phone call before settling down for a drink.

Monday, May 25, 2009


Memorial Day weekend so I took an extra bump day on posting-- plus the last post was double length. I'm pretty pleased with the NPC series, but I have to go back eventually and polish those entries.

Long weekend and the allergies have been pretty rough. The temperature in the house finally broke 80 for a bit so I went to turn on the AC, and discovered it had gone out. So now I'm looking forward to spending money on that come Tuesday. Plus we ended up with a couple more obligations than I'd intended to have and we missed the Big Eat gathering this year. On the other hand, our niece got accepted into the Indiana Academy, which is a pretty big step for her. She's been bored to tears at her current school and this will mean a significant ramping up of challenge for her. Plus she'll be going away to school (it is located at Ball State) which will give her a leg up on the college experience. She decided on her own she wanted to do this, although we backed her up on it, and went through the process on her own steam. I think I'm impressed with that as much as anything. I recall high school being a time of ideas larger than execution so I'm happy she had the drive to do that.

So a mixed blog post today-- just some notes on some interesting things I've seen or read.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse: This is Fritz Lang talkie, the last movie he made before fleeing Nazi Germany. I've been more familiar with the idea of Fritz lang himself than his films. I can only think of three that I've definitively seen: Metropolis, Spies, and M. One of my favorite books, Flicker, has its central enigmatic McGuffin character loosely based on Lang. Mabuse turns out to be quite an enjoyable film. Based loosely on a series of pulp novels featuring the Mabuse Supercriminal, the commentary suggested that figure has great resonance and power in Europe-- akin to Fu Manchu or Moriarty. Lang had made an earlier silent film featuring the Mabuse character and this one can be considered a sequal in some ways. It also serves as a sequel to M in that the police detective character returns and several sets are reused. Criterion does a nice job of presenting a restored and complete version clocking in at a little over two hours. Previous available cuts had significant editing, usually running at around 80+ minutes.

The commentary on the disk is worth listening to-- I actually enjoyed the movie enough that I watched the feature and then the commentary back-to-back. Lang's got a distinct visual style, but he doesn't quite fit into the category of German Expressionism of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu. But he seems to be one of the earliest users of a certain kind of visual/narrative trick that we've become used to. Essentially visual, audio or speech elements carry over from one scene transition to the next-- where they become changed to a different context. In one scene we hear the ticking of a time bomb in the room where a couple is trapped. When the scene fades and changes the sound continues but is revealed to be the tapping of someone breaking open a hard-boiled egg. In another scene we have the police detective wondering about what drove on of his associates mad. We cut to a doctor lecturing about madness and assume he's talking about that person, but in fact he's introducing another character. There's the classic narrowing in on an object, like a gun, and then when we pull back we're in a different scene with the same gun. Alan Moore's well known for borrowing this trick, and if you've read Watchmen then you've seen him use that to great effect. I enjoyed seeing one of the earliest uses of this in cinema.

Other odd trivia from watching this. I'd seen pictures of Lang, an slightly formal, very German-looking fellow with a monocle. I'd assumed that was an affectation, but it turns out one of his eyes was injured in WW1 and he used the monocle to correct his vision. I'd also thought of such things purely as ornamentation, but they had a practical purpose. Sherri pointed out that sort of thing would have been more common in the past where injuries or diseases would have debilitated only one eye. It makes sense, but it honestly hadn't occurred to me-- especially since the monocle's become such a shorthand visual element denoting fanciness or high society.

Oishinbo (A La Carte) is a manga covering food. I've read another food manga, Yakitate!! which was more of a boys adventure manga about a kid who battles to become the world's greatest baker with his magic warm hands. Seriously. That's a fantastical series, more like Naruto than anything else. Oishinbo, on the other hand, is a serious exploration of Japanese culture and cuisine. The main character's a kind of lazy guy who has a refined palette. He's a reporter assigned to come up with the Ultimate Menu feature to celebrate his paper's 100 year anniversary. He battles with various critics, his awful father and the rival paper in his effort to find the great things about Japanese cuisine. The stories also feature domestic and personal turmoils that can only be overcome by learning about the true soul of Japanese food.

I won't say the art's that great-- it seems to serve the story, but it does have some great and exacting depictions of cooking scenes. The first volume covers the ethos of Japanese cuisine, the second looks at Sake and spirits, and the third has Gyoza and Ramen. Each volume has a couple of color plates with some recipes. Interestingly for the Viz English language editions, they assembled the stories thematically. The original manga didn't appear in such an order. I think that's a pretty good choice for a manga which has such a strong educational purpose rather than an evolving plot. However it does mean that when you're reading, you'll see characters appear as regulars who haven't been introduced yet, references to incidents we haven't seen, and changes in the lives of the characters which go unexplained. Still it is fascinating if you like food and manga. The end notes are adequate-- not up to the standard of Dark Horse's wonderful commentaries, but enough to answer a couple of questions.

I'll keep it short today and come back to a couple of like things tomorrow.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Gamemastering NPCs (Part Five)

Well that was almost twenty-four hours with my internet out.

Gamemastering NPCs (Part Five)

Previous Installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

NPCs as Dialogue: Interacting with NPCs forms the dialogue of an rpg story. In a conventional narrative, dialogue ought to serve at least one of three purposes:
1.Advancing the Plot
2.Revealing Character
3.Advancing the Theme

In a role-playing game, you have a fourth possibility, giving the players a chance to act. That's the gaming and shared narrative nature of the rpg. The player gains some control over what the purpose of an interaction is. Conventional narrative has the opportunity to go back and trim, edit and revise-- making sure that any dialogue has at least some tension or conflict inherent in it. In an rpg we keep moving forward, improvising and developing. The GM should keep the possibility for these purposes open in a game. Games with a plot centered approach focus on the first of these purposes and think much less about the others. If you're playing with new players be aware that they may have come out of these kinds of campaigns. It may take them time to see that NPC interactions can do other things.

Doppleganging: One technique to consider in choosing NPCs for players I call Doppleganging—which isn't exactly a precise term here. By this I mean presenting NPCs for particular characters who echo or reflect certain characteristics from that PC. This can be used for several purposes. It can be used to provided an expository opportunity for both the GM and the player. For example, in the Libri Vidicos game, Scott's running an Elf, one of the two non-humans in the party. From the beginning the issue of his racial identity became central to perceptions of his character. Scott and I have always had very different takes on the Elves so one of my goals has been to explicate their identity. In the first year of the campaign, I only had a couple of Elves on campus, but in the second year an oddly large number of the incoming first-years have been Elves, drawn from the various groups and clans across the continent. This has a plot relevant purpose, but it was also intended as a specific character opportunity. Scott's had the opportunity to interact with a couple of them-- including one from his own people who has a very different take on things. On my side, I've had the chance to show how different the Elves can be. On Scott's side he's been an advocate for his vision of what it means to be an Elf. I feel a little bad that we haven't gotten to explore this as much as I'd hoped, but I've laid the groundwork for future interactions in the coming campaign years.

The Changeling campaign also lends itself to this kind of approach. Character's in the Changeling setting come from one of a set of six fairly distinct Seemings which are the equivalent to races or classes. Within those Seemings they have several sub-types form by having starkly differing experiences during their time of imprisonment by the Fae Overlords. Built into the structure of the campaign then is a kind of echoing. One of my favorite scenes so far was a lunch meeting of the different Ogres of the Freehold, allowing me to show a variety of takes on the idea of Ogre-dom and having that interact with the two PCs who share that Seeming.

Another form of Doppleganging is more tricky and I've had mixed success with it. If a player character has definite negative traits or attitudes you can model those habits in NPCs. For example, in the Crux campaign we had a PC who seemed to be built on being angry-- about his family, his background, his situation. I put him into contact with an NPC from another like group who shared those traits and outlook. In this case, the PC took a dislike to the NPC but didn't come to any realization about that moment. I can identify several reasons for this-- the scenes being handled a little too subtly, too much else going on, and too much of the PC's attitudes being actually the player's attitudes.

I think one of the key difference lies in how some players see those negative traits: inherent and vital to the character or else something which the player hopes to overcome through the course of the game. Traits intrinsic to the player themselves can't be affected through this method, either because the player doesn't recognize them or they revel in them. If, however, the PC begins in a bad place, then an echoing NPC can give them a incident which can help them begin that journey to make changes. Anger, Arrogance, Laziness, Self-Centeredness, Suspicion-- the classic rpg disadvantages can evolve into something else over time. If the player wants to evolve the character, the GM should recognize this and provide opportunities for evolution. At the same time, the GM shouldn't push this too hard. You don't want to force changes in character conception on a player. Instead, give them the tools to make those developments naturally.

Sometimes you can provide kind of end game models for the PCs. In one of the L5R campaigns, we had a PC who had suffered a deep family betrayal which drove him to become a Ronin and have a generally bad attitude, especially towards a rival clan, the Scorpion. Throughout the campaign, I tried to provide models-- for example that the destructive path he found himself on in fact echoed that of the father who had betrayed him. I also tried to provide a doppleganger character from the clan he hated-- someone who had gone through the same kind of betrayal he had, but had risen above it to become a noble and sacrificing person, unlike others of the Scorpion. I have to say generally that particular gambit failed in part because the player had a very narrow take on their own self-justification. Ironically, the other players recognized the differences which made for some odd role-play. The campaign ended with that PC being ordered to commit seppuku. To give him props, he did manage to role-play a character destroying himself through a desire for vengeance better than anyone else I've seen.

I've had some more literal Doppleganging in the Changeling game, including a character sharing many traits with Will's who seems to have embraced the path of the villain and been put down. In the Freakish Band of Adventurers campaign, we had a Dave's character who turned out to be the negative traits the major villain of the piece had made manifest in order to destroy. He'd escaped. Throughout the campaign I watched what Dave did and shaped the villain to be the opposite of that-- or at least someone who had self-loathing towards those impulses. On the other hand, another tactic is to hit a PC with a complete opposite of themselves who ignores all of those differences-- I've gotten some good interactions from the character of the Larker in the Changeling game who inversely dopplegangs not just Shari's character. He's unabashedly direct in opposite to some of her character's social interactions, but at the same time draws his form from the dark river that originally swallowed her character and drew her into the Hedge.

Of course with these approaches you want to be careful not to be too heavy-handed. Present them and allow the players to explore them as they wish. Try not to sink into parody of a particular PC-- treat them respectfully. Give them the tools and opportunities to become the character's they wish to be.

Live With It: Sometimes when you're caught in the heat of an interaction, you'll say something you don't mean to. I don't mean something nasty like an insult, I trust people to have common sense about that. However it will happen that an NPC will reveal a detail about a plot point, make a misstatement, talk about things which they really shouldn't know about.

Don't do takebacks.

Be ready to run with it. Accept your mistake and move forward. You have to do this for several reasons. Primarily: doing so undercuts your illusion of GM infallibility. You want to maintain that. The players trust you're saying what you mean and know what's going on. You also model good behavior-- if you're willing to go with something when you misspeak, you encourage them to do the same. If you give yourself a takeback, you're obliged to give them the same benefit of the doubt. Not that you wouldn't otherwise, but you do help make players comfortable with errors. Obviously don't draw attention to the mistake, just keep moving-- sometimes players won't catch it. And sometimes you have my wife at the table. If you have to correct something, correct it immediately. Avoid retconning things later-- if you demonstrate you're willing to go back and change something then you undercut player trust in your narrative. How are they to draw conclusions or put things together if you might go back and change things. Trust is a vital GM currency. Also-- and I always have to watch for this-- if someone corrects you at the table about something you've said-- a plot point, a game ruling, whatever-- don't say something like “OK I'll let that fly for now,” as if you're giving a gift. That creates a barrier between you and the players-- a position of arrogance that seems to suggest all good things come from your benevolent hand and any mistakes are really a misperception on the player's part. If you suffer a plot correction, agree, apologize and thank the player for their perceptive input. Well, unless the player has gone to the rulebook and starts quoting things in the heat of combat-- in that case you need to crush them mercilessly underfoot. Sometimes.

OK, 1700+ words and well past the limit I wanted to set for myself, but I want to finish this series.

Romantic Subplots: Romance and desire figure heavily into conventional narratives-- if you know Harry Potter, think about how much the addition of those issues begins to complicate and deepen things from Year Three on. Sometimes it gets in the way of the plot, like say Batman Begins where it feels tacked on, and sometimes it humanize it, like say The Dark Knight. Anyway, even though we're sitting around a table in a basement, playing with figures and dice, we shouldn't throw away these kinds of plots and ideas. Obviously some kinds of campaigns lend themselves to romantic tropes better than others.

You have two things you need to figure out if you're thinking about having romantic plots: which players will be interested in those plots and if the group as a whole will react well to those things at the table. In the case of the latter, if you know that certain players will catcall and make comments about romantic scenes at the table, you have to handle those carefully. Either handle those interactions off-table or by careful table management. Barry was notorious for short-circuiting other player's romantic interactions-- so you'd have to distract him with other things before you moved on to handling those with other players. But you also have to know which players are interested in those kinds of plots. More than any other kind of NPC interaction you have to work with these interactions carefully. Never, ever push those things-- keep an eye out for NPCs a player seems interested in a try to work through those scenes. Take them as seriously as possible-- there's a real trust issue in those interactions and breaking character can be bad.

Avoid sex. Except for the suggestive Mata Hari type tropes-- stay away from this area generally. This kinds of things can be implied off-screen, but don't delve into them. You run the risk of embarrassment or dipping straight into juvenile stuff if you work those kinds of narratives. As goofy as it sounds, desire, love and romance works best with a kind of chaste affection, long-term development and delayed gratification.

The problem is that a successfully concluded romance is kind of a dead end narrative path for an rpg. What's important is the courting, the figuring out, the ups and downs, and the development. If you look at my campaigns, you'll usually note that romances are only successfully concluded towards the end of the game. There are a couple of reasons for that. Once PCs have, for lack of a better word, hooked up, it limits their dramatic choices. What's more interesting and parallel to the course of the campaign's length is the back and forth difficulty of finding love and making it work. Break ups and betrayals are emotionally resonant, so you'd think that would be good for the story-- but the potential baggage coming from that doesn't balance out against the gain. Players get involved with their characters-- an rejection or a violation of trust from an NPC can have spill over. At the very least it can make them seriously gunshy about future interactions.

It bears repeating: be certain that your players are interested in and comfortable with romantic plots before you delve into them. On the flip side, be sure that your GM is comfortable with running those plots before you try to instigate them. Emotional and relational baggage can really destroy a game. Don't have Mary Sue characters trying to interact with PCs-- I've seen that a couple of times and it is nothing but creepy. Respect gender boundaries-- I've seen GMs use NPCs to hit on female characters or run through weird stuff. Again, that's nothing but creepy. Be careful.

As I suggested, the real sticking point for romantic plots in a long term campaign is that the romantic plots themselves have to be long term. Think about how that works in episodic fiction-- Mulder and Scully from the X-Files, the interplay on Bones, the several loves of Harry Potter, even to a certain extent the Angel/Buffy relationship. They're drawn out. If you remember Northern Exposure, you may also remember the back and forth relationship of the two main characters and how settling that kind of killed the show. Now in some cases, those relationships are consummated, but they're torn apart by outside circumstances-- the Angel/Buffy turn evil thing or the various problems in Veronica Mars. Those problems keep the romance truly unsolved and remove a certain degree of emotional blame-- I think that if you do have a somewhat finished relationship in a game going on, the outside world has to intrude on it. It makes things more tense and shifts the weight of any emotional blame.

I'd say generally my model for romantic relationships in games comes from two places. The Three Musketeers, one of my favorite novels, which has the long and courtly interplay of the main character and his lady love. I think that's a great example of drawing out the plot and having an ultimately satisfying resolution. I'd also say that many manga present great examples-- Fruits Basket, the early part of His and Her Circumstances, Blue Seed, Ouran Host Club, etc. There the romance is a vital part and we're never sure exactly where it is going to go.

On the other hand, some manga and anime presents a problematic version of the romance tale. As an example-- most of the “harem”-type stories, like Tenchi Miyo. These reinforce a particularly bad set of images about romance-- that a character only has to be good to have women swarming on him. What bothers me is a kind of objectification of the females there. There's also a lack of real understanding and effort on the part of the main characters usually. I think that plays into a particular geek trope about being “friends” with a female and she'll come around. But that's a whole topic I don't necessarily want to get into-- something I might come back to. Suffice as to say, sometimes players will not make good choices about the kinds of NPCs they want to develop a romantic relationship with. Not unlike real life. One of the problems lies in the distance implied with running a character in a fantastic setting-- in the past I've had some players want to develop romantic sub-plots with particular NPCs while at the same time clearly not understanding anything about that NPC's personality and motivation. I know Scott had problems with that in the L5R campaign-- he was expecting things to move in a more Western or even Anime romance pattern which doesn't fit with the social hierarchy there and he had a hard time working within that. In the Cyberpunk version of Saviors I ran, Barry got really bent out of shape because his attempts to hit on an NPC kept failing, despite all of the signals I sent about her sexual orientation. What I've learned from that is, especially with these kinds of tropes, you have to be more generous and you also have to be a little more explicit if the player is missing the subtext.

OK, 2900 words or so. I think I'm done with this topic for the time being. I know I've gone off the reservation a couple of times in my articles, but I hope if gives you some insights into how I see NPCs and their roles in my games.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Gamemastering NPCs (Part Four)

Gamemastering NPCs (Part Four)

Previous Installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three

**Esoterica/Theoretical Blather Warning**

Basic Rule: One of the unspoken rules of GMing is that a game must be tailored for several different players with different expectations while at the same time remaining coherent. That's another way in which an rpg differs from other conventional narratives. There's an immediacy to response and feedback-- and while something like Improv Comedy might have a similar back and forth-- even that doesn't have to target the individual. NPCs, used well, can be among a GM's most important assets for serving all the players at the table. Mind you, some players don't get into NPCs, and for those you have to come up with other approaches.

Emotional and Intellectual Approaches: I'm susceptible to a certain impulse for categories and typologies for things. I like being able to look at things in groupings to see similarities. At the same time I also realize that such efforts have an inherent risk of simplification. I don't know if my attraction comes from an analytical bent or it just like seeing things organized. Despite my move to less rule and mechanic intensive gaming, I still like seeing the various categories of things games use: skill sets, character classes, orders of magic and so on. Anyway, I say all that by way of saying that I know sometimes I tend to break things into groups which don't always fit. For example, how players react to the narrative.

I don't know it it could work as a set of classes, but I do think you can examine player's reactions in terms of their Intellectual and Emotional engagement with the story. In the case of NPCs as I've been discussing, how they relate to those NPCs. I'm still working through these ideas, but I think I can kind of describe a little of what I mean here. Players with a more Intellectual approach tend to see the game as a game or perhaps see the narrative as plot points, challenges, and incidents. There's a focus on the meta-structure of the narrative. Not that the players necessarily see things in a purely mechanical way or that they see combat and problem solving as the whole of a game, but they tend to approach things first from that perspective. That gives them a kind of distance from the narrative. Players who are less role-play invested with an Intellectual approach will then be more likely to see NPCs as devices-- switches or dispensers for particular resources. There's incident and that incident needs to be dealt with. On the other hand, players who take role-play seriously but have a more Intellectual approach will usually build characters who by design maintain a distance from NPCs. They're outsiders, loners, have non-empathetic personalities, or character flaws that they can fall back on to avoid or reduce connections (a temper, greed, a vow or some kind for example). They can play defensively, trying to avoid entanglements that they perceive as potential traps-- these connections being in the same category as a literal pitfall in a dungeon.

On the other hand, emotional engagement players try to see the story and the environment first. This may seem like an obviously good thing, but it can have drawbacks. For example, I've often referred to a particularly shitty kind of play response called “I was just playing my character.” That's where a player does obnoxious things to another player or to the GM and then claims that any blame should be exorcised by the fact that they really had no control over their actions. It is the equivalent to sending an insulting email and ending it with a smiley face, claiming that your soul won't let you say anything less than the “real truth” or saying “just joking.” Sometimes that's a mechanical or intellectual approach, in that is recognizes the social rules of the setting and twists them to its own benefit. But an more Emotionally engaged player may do the same kind of thing and not recognize that the playing of their character could be problematic-- in that they don't see the meta-level of the social interaction of a game table. Excessively Emotionally engaged players may also react badly when bad things happen to them, taking the events personally. All of these are extreme examples-- and one of the things that pleases me is that I do have to reach back several years to be able to find examples of this kind of play.

What does this mean in terms of GMing? It goes back to being a careful observer of your player's behavior. For example, when Derek's playing in my games, I know he's not going to engage emotionally with the NPCs. He'll interact with them, be intrigued by them, and even like them, but I know he maintains a certain distance. That's not a bad thing-- it simply means that I have to choose which kinds of plots and characters to put in his path. As a counter-example, I know Sherri will emotionally engage with NPCs-- will try to form bonds with them. If I want to keep an NPC non-sympathetic, then I need to keep them out of her way. She will try to bore down to get at what is happening in that NPC's head. I'd point to Mr. Fenris as another example-- keeping in mind I've only played with him in a couple of campaigns and always as a fellow player. He role-plays strongly, but in the games I saw, also made sure his character's had an emotional distance-- which allowed him a kind of escape clause. If I were going to run for him, I'd have to calculate accordingly. I think will had some problems with that in the Hunter game-- and I don't mean to be presumptuous on this-- where the other players had a more strongly emotional approach to the setting and NPCs. The kinds of plots and characters that would work for us would not for Mr. Fenris' character.

A Long Digression on Craft: The application of analyzing a player's play style and their wants lies in adapting and adjusting the game on the fly for the individual players. This leads me to a conversation I had a number of years ago with Derek-- and I'm going to apologize in advance for possibly misstating his position. We'd been talking about having to adjust games for the benefit of the players-- reducing or increasing challenges, removing or adding themes, and so on. I favored compromise, but Derek, while willing to allow for some compromise, said that he didn't want to change a campaign into something he didn't want to run. Now to a certain extent I can agree with that position-- but on the other hand, if you're going to run I think you have to take seriously that you've got to entertain a group of people, people willing to commit many hours to the campaign. In that case I don't think you can really sustain a challenging piece. For example, some works of art get in the audience's face, drag them through the muck, make them culpable in the awfulness going on. In cinema, that'd be something like Audition or Funny Games; in novels maybe something like William S. Burroughs; in comics Black Hole by Charles Burns; and in painting maybe Roger Bacon. The difference is that those things have a brevity to them-- and regardless of the engagement or attempts to accuse the audience of being part of the situation, there's still a narrative distance.

A role-playing game has to deal with length, interactivity and a reduced emotional distance. I think you can get away with a really challenging and possibly unpleasant game for one or maybe two sessions. Likely you won't get players back. I'm not saying that's what Derek or any GM wants in their desire for lack of compromise, I'm making an extreme comparison. But my view is that an role-playing campaign (or session) isn't Art with a captial “A”. It is an art, with a little “a”-- closer to the sense of techne, like a craftsperson who creates with a sense of practical use included, rather than an artist who creates something intended for objective aesthetic appreciation. Gamemasters are craftsmen and if they make a bike with a spike for a seat, they won't get people coming back for a second ride unless they're masochists.

So I guess what I'm saying is that while a GM is trying to create something transcendent, they still have to realize that players will be looking for the handlebars, the gear-shift, the pedals. Which actually is a terrible analogy since people don't handcraft bicycles. Interactivity is at the heart of role-playing which implies dialogue and compromise. Throwing that away undercuts the potential satisfaction on both sides. I've run nihilistic games, but I realize that's there's a limit to how far you can push that.

And again, all of which is to say: GM's, don't be afraid to pander to your players. Keep an eye out for what they like and give that to them. Make it sweet and delicious. Because all of that sweetness will make the bitter which comes later that much more poignant and potent. I know some people put it the other way around-- that you need to put some bitter in to make the rest seem sweeter, but I think, from a GM's perspective you go the other direction.

F***. Sorry about the rambling game theorizing today-- and of course I hit my self-imposed blog length limit. Next AND LAST POST IN THIS SERIES Romance, Living with the Consequences, and Doppleganging.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Gamemastering NPCs (Part Three)

Gamemastering NPCs (Part Three)

Previous Installments: Part One, Part Two

Entering the Story: There's an interesting paradox in role-playing games, in some ways presented right there in what we call them. Players take on roles, characters, that they've created. That step, that stage separates rpgs from other forms of fiction and narrative.

John Gardener says, “The first thing that makes a reader read a book is the characters.” In most stories we connect to the world and environment through the characters we read about and see. They're the gateway to everything else and we view them passively, but (in a good story) with emotional connection. We learn about their inner lives, see their suffering and uncover the plot through them.

But an rpg removes that distance. The players take a part and have an emotional connection to themselves, but they also need to have sympathy and connection with the larger story since, in some ways, as PCs they still serve in the audience role. NPCs can help manage that-- a play within a play-- as the PCs see some of the trials and sufferings of those characters. There's some other dimensions to this paradox I'll come back to perhaps in a later post-- the main one being that good players know that main character's suffer and go through turmoil in fiction and react accordingly. Less good players shut down when confronted with the kinds of challenges that you'd normally expect in a story.

Details: Good use of sensory detail is important in being a GM. It goes without saying that these kinds of details help to flesh out an NPC. Consider the various ways you can express the obvious nature of a character and perhaps their contradictions: how do they dress in what situations, what does their workplace look like, what do they keep in their wallet, is their car nice or messy, what do they listen to? That's kind of an obvious set of things, but also consider-- what do they sound like? what do they smell like? how do they move? Just choosing one or two odd details can make a character much more distinct for the players.

Memories: NPCs hold grudges-- they remember how the players treated them before and act accordingly. I've have a few players, in the more distant past, be surprised when an NPC wouldn't deal with or help them because of how they'd been treated before. Likewise, I've mentioned the ecology of the NPCs, so if a PC treats an NPC badly, if there's a closed community word will get around about how the PC behaves. On the flip sides, PCs who treat NPCs fairly and respectfully-- or get the better of disliked NPCs-- should get credit for that. That's a nice, tangible reward for good and careful play on the PC's part-- that their reputation precedes them.

Email and NPCs: Depending on the campaign, I can end up doing quite a bit of material via email. Rarely players want to run through facts for an investigation. That's a good way to handle side plots and personal investigations as it doesn't eat up time at the table. Do avoid dealing with major plot threads or group vital matters this way-- unless you have a host of things that need to be gotten through. If you deal with group invested material individually, you run the risk of having a player feel slighted or left our. Emails also allow players to ask for background info. You can easily answer those kinds of questions and then, if you're using a wiki, post that stuff. I do try to make clear that I won't answer big, broad questions via email-- otherwise I can end up spending hours writing things. If someone asks a question that's too broad I'll answer with “Green” or “Ham” and then suggest they narrow their question.

But most often, I use emails to allow PCs to interact with NPCs one-on-one. You can flesh out these characters and give players a chance to explore their own backstory and that of the NPC. I'll admit it also serves as a decent writing exercise-- though often you're working through long bits of expository dialogue rather than writing a full interaction. I try to encourage the players to ask directed questions or suggest what they're trying to get from interacting with an NPC in emails. If they simply say “Hi” and then want me to fill in the rest or spin stuff out from there, I tend to respond minimally. If they've set up the scene, however, I'm willing to do more fill in for the players. Email interactions also allow the Gm to provide more filler explanation within the dialogue-- “Beletan heard what she'd said but could tell that something was missing, that she was holding something back.” Those kinds of cues, subtle or not, can help the player. While email serves as a great tool, it can also overwhelm you. I don't usually read a player's email until I actually have time to respond. Otherwise I end up with too many current tasks I'm thinking about and I don't get anything done. I also generally try to respond to a particular email thread only once per day, unless I don't have any other emails in my queue.

I'll also admit that I'm a little more of a bastard with email interactions. Players have a goal in a scene-- perhaps to find something out or to make a connection with an NPC. My goal is different-- I want to counter expectations and switch things up to keep them interesting. That's how I keep my head in the game when I'm doing numerous emails. I'll throw challenges and tricks that I might not normally do at the table. I'll admit that I also manage my words and details more carefully in NPC email interactions. I figure I can afford to provide more subtle clues and hints as well as broader onces since the player can go back and reread those interactions. Some of it is foreshadowing that won't pay off for a long time.

Name Carefully: Say the names of your NPCs aloud-- especially in a fantasy game with more fantastic names. I you don't you might find yourself stumbling over pronouncing them when you get to the table. Or worse you'll find that the NPC's name can easily be mangled into a more colorful version. As my witness I call the major villain who was immediately redubbed “Sufferin' Nutsack”.

I Am Spartacus: Unless you're trying to send a strong and particular message-- generally avoid having the NPCs show up the PCs. Generally I mean this for allied NPCs. If you have a mixed party, then try to keep the spotlight and narrative focus on the players. NPCs can do cool things, but they shouldn't solve the challenges the PCs face. However, skilled NPCs can serve to fill in gaps in the party's repetiore-- the tech support, street connection or online researcher.

Scott and I a number of years ago had an interesting discussion about PC centrality- where we essentially agreed on this premise but had slightly different takes on it. We were playing in a campaign with a large cast of NPCs. I never felt like any of them showed us up when went actually played out challenges. However over time our plans expanded and we had many fires we needed to put out. My logical conclusion was to organize groups of the NPCs to send out into the field to deal with certain things. We concentrated on those events and issues most vital and dangerous. Scott objected to this, feeling that it took away from the PCs role. In this case, I don't believe that it did-- for a couple of reasons. First we still had the role of leadership-- deciding who went where and what they were trying to do. Second we had too many things for us to possibly handle them all simultaneously. I think those two factors mitgated the potential theft of spotlight from the PCs. In this case, the structure of the campaign lent itself to that kind of approach. While I disagreed with Scott's assessment in that particular case, I still keep his words in mind and try to be cautious about having NPCs sent off to handle a challenge unless the players seem to feel like they still have the central role in setting that up.

In making NPCs, the GM faces the same conundrum that the players do-- separating themselves from their characters. If you like an NPC too much and want to show how absolutely cool you think he is that will come across at the table. In fan-fic they call these “Mary-Sue” characters. The GM usually presents them as their idea of smooth or cool which may be very different what what the players think is smooth or cool. If players seem to take an instant dislike to a particular character take a moment to evaluate if that's what's going on. If you're running a game and you become overly protective of a particular NPC or react emotionally when a player offends or gets in that character's face, you probably need to take a step back. NPCs, despite the investment of time you've put into them and the backstory you've created, should in then end serve as devices to help provide the players with a deeper and more interesting story. The only infallible NPCs should be master villains who will get theirs in the end.

One more part and probably short next post-- romance and rivals

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Gamemastering NPCs (Part Two)

Feeling better today after getting knocked down by something yesterday. The second scattershot entry on NPCs below-- third and final part will come next post.

Gamemastering NPCs (Part Two)

Previous Installment: Part One

Pick-n-Choose: I've focused on inner life and knowing details, but of course I leave these kinds of considerations for characters who are going to reappear or serve a more permanent role. Sometimes I'll know that beforehand-- certain characters fit into vital roles for the plot. We know they'll be recurring and worth developing. However we know that some characters just don't stick. They don't generate interest among the players. You can bring a character back and try to add some element to them that might make them more interesting, but in general because I operate with a large cast, if someone doesn't work I will retire them. They'll still exist but probably won't get much time at the table. If they served a particular minor role, I'll transfer that to another existing character or develop an entirely new one.

The trick for noticing this at the table is twofold. Obviously if the players actively seek out the characters to talk with them, that's an indication that they're interested in them. A more subtle clue is to listen when the PCs talk amongst themselves and see who they mention. Those mentions indicate that the character has made an impression. Take advantage of that. Bring the character back for a ply-through or make them more integral to the plot. If you're keeping a list of quick scenes for the PCs make sure to use those NPCs.

From the player side of things, if you find an NPC intriguing, seek them out. Tell them GM that you enjoy how a particular character plays at the table. A good GM will take that into account and bring them back. By the same token don't push that point-- sometimes a GM will not enjoy an NPC as much as the players do. They may be bothered at how the character's actually rolled out in play.

Sometimes a weird dynamic arises from this. One of the most frustrating things for me as a player is to have an NPC I liked never reappear or be available. I've had a couple of times where I've pushed hard, in part because talking to or allying with a particular NPC makes sense but the GM avoids it. Sometimes this makes sense-- the NPC has another role to play or has other circumstances going on that means they react that way. The GM ought to communicate that.

Dead NPCs: I kill NPCs, but I do that more sparingly than I have in the past. I've learned over the years that being ready to kill NPCs at the drop of a hat is a certain way to make players avoid making real connections and investment in the world around them. The same thing applies to trust and betrayal by NPCs. Both death and revelation of the traitor scenes need to be handled carefully. While they might seem like potent dramatic moments they have serious consequences on the players' mindset. Obviously the Gm can't rule these things out-- but assess the consequences carefully.

Keep in mind that players at your table are constantly trying to get a sense of the world around them. And in another sense they're trying to get a feel for what kind of story they're in. If you signal that death is cheap, players will act accordingly. Some players naturally avoid NPCs because of this-- assuming they're unimportant or more likely some kind of trap for the players. You can usually pick these players out early in a game. Dealing with them is a more difficult task. If they're clearly gunshy, then you need to probably talk openly about that issue. If they just don't care about NPCs or take them seriously then you have a few options. You can concentrate on other plot details for them-- concrete things, puzzles, rumors or capers. You can also try to provide them with NPCs who might demonstrate the value of these interactions. Someone who can get them something they need or want, but only if they're treated respectfully.

Puzzling out how different players see the NPCs is important. Some players seem to think NPCs function as they do in videogames-- possessing limited dialogue branches, providing fetch quests, vomiting exposition, or to be killed without consequence. If possible, rid these players of that conception early. Some players haven't played in an “open game”-- where NPCs serve as a kind of floating pool of information. I've had some frustration in games where I've provided lists of NPCs and then had players decide they've come to a dead end in an investigation because they don't have the appropriate skills. The GM has to make clear a few times in a gentle manner that the campaign has a certain logic to it-- model and reward play to help players who feel stuck. Some players play defensively across the board-- they've come from games where the GM and player have an adversarial relationship or else they're generally risk-adverse. They avoid all but the most superficial engagements with the NPCs or, in fact, most background and setting detail.

Another player approach worth watching out for and dealing with, on some level, are players who take a proprietary approach to NPCs. They interact with a particular NPC and then assume that this character is their's and their's alone. If other players interact with that character, especially when they're not present, they become irritated. That gets played out as a certain amount of tension and irritation at the table. On the one hand if another player is deliberately moving to step on another player's toes, that's one thing. But I've seen this happen as both a GM and a player-- usually without any basis except a feeling that an NPC represents a very personal thing or a resource to be written down on a character sheet. A GM has to keep a close eye on this for a couple of reasons. First, it creates inter-party tension, especially when you have players operating in different modes-- a player who doesn't see anything proprietary in interactions may not understand why another player has suddenly become angry at the table. Second, if you've invested plotlines in a particular NPC and a player has decided that no one else should interact with that character, it can bring those plots to a screeching halt. If the player doesn't follow up then those plots become lost. On the other hand, if you do activate those plots and they by necessity broaden to impact the whole party they you run the risk of irritating the possessive player again.

Selfish players and players who overly invest in their characters are just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, to the smooth operation of a group than apathy. In some ways, I'd rather deal with apathy-- as the other set of problems requires disentangling personal and play behaviors.

Authority: It has been my experience that players generally tend to react negatively to authority figures. I'm not saying constantly, but more often than not if a figure seems to be part of the establishment, players may react out of preconceptions rather than who the character is. A person who is in charge when the PCs meet them will more often than not be seen as an obstacle or as wrongly holding their authority. A GM has to be prepared for those kinds of reactions. You can sometimes spot that pattern with players and begin to shape your narrative in reaction to that. Not that authority figures then all have to be sunshine and roses, but you can taken the opportunity to complicate their reactions and deepen the scene. I'd take this authority-reaction as a general idea and not a strict rule. It varies from player to player and from campaign to campaign.

Next post-- romance, rivals, the paradox on rpg narrative, email voice, living with the consequences, pandering and more.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Gamemastering NPCs (Part One)

Gamemastering NPCs (Part One)

I think it would be hard to overestimate the importance of NPCs to a campaign. Characters, done well, allow the GM to provide depth and texture to what would otherwise be text box descriptions of things and events. I watch a lot of crap TV and most of the time it isn't because I'm amazed by the plot, but rather that I like the characters. That's what separates the various CSI's for me-- some have more interesting characters. It keeps me watching bad shows long after they've passed their expiration date.

Anyway, I wanted to talk about some things to think about regarding characters, from a player and GM perspective. I'm splitting this across two posts. I've put together a set of ideas rather than one long analytical treatment of the idea. For many of my campaigns, NPCs serve as the engine that drives the action. I have plot, incident and environment, but the NPCs serve to help explicate all of those things. Some stories will obviously have more or fewer NPCs, but generally I fall back to them as a tool and a device. Some PCs work with and enjoy NPCs more than others-- and some interact with them on a more serious level. That's an assessment GMs need to make about their players and play styles.

With NPCs consistency is tough but necessary. One challenge as a GM comes from establishing a character vividly and then remembering that character's personality later. I juggle many NPCs across many games, and right now I have two character-intensive campaigns going. While some NPCs will show up every session, some will reappear more rarely and as a GM you need to be ready to pull them up quickly. You need to be close to that character's previous portrayal: attitude, interests, voice, and so on. If you don't you're throwing away one of your most powerful tools.

The trick is this: if you establish behavior-- read generally as all of those markers you've provided for the character previously-- you can then have a behavior shift at the table as an indication that something has happened. They've heard something about the players, they're protecting something, their family is being held hostage. If you don't establish that consistency, then players will either not read what you're doing as being any different and therefore ignore potential developments or they will spot changes when there are not. That can be a frustrating cycle for the players. Missteps can be little things. At a session the other day I dropped into character but didn't bring up the NPC's established voice. The sharp PC assumed, since we were on an intercom, that this wasn't in fact the NPC. I had to switch to the voice quickly.

In that case I'd established the voice several times before. If I'd done it once or twice, it might not have been a big deal. I'll say this quite honestly-- that consistency is what I worry about most when I do voices for NPCs-- will I be able to remember that voice later? Generally I try not to do a distinctive voice unless I know the character will reoccur again fairly often or the character is never going to reappear.

The running joke, with a deep truth to it, is that Sherri remembers the names of all of the NPCs. She does-- and remembers them for campaigns long gone by. What I try to keep organized in my mind is a character's role and motivation. I also try to remember what they thought of the PC's when they last spoke of them. I focus on that-- so I often forget the names and have to look them up. Or I would but usually Sherri's already shouted out the name by the time I've started leafing through.

I think remembering motivation and needs is vital. There's a writer's edict that says when two people have a conversation in a scene, both of them are trying to achieve something. They each have something they want. The trick of the scene lies in conveying something of those desires through the subtext. That's important when you have a PC talking to an NPC. If the NPC simply serves as a “talking head” providing information, then the GM ought to communicate that at the beginning of the interaction-- through body language, voice or even phrasing like “...he begins to tell you a tale...”. In those cases the NPCs are event points rather than real interactions.

Real interactions have context and meaning. If they've met before, that should shape how the NPC reacts. If the NPC doesn't like something about the character, that should obviously impact the exchange. If they have something to hide or something concrete they want, that should be hinted at. I restate the obvious here, but really NPCs should have their own inner lives, ones which don't necessarily sync up with what the PCs want.

NPCs can serve as both devices for moving the story forward and also obstacles for the PCs. They can do this at the same time. Sometimes when players hit obstacles in a game, they don't see a challenge-- they see a wall. I'd say this happens most often with player interactions with NPCs. If they've had a bad encounter with a particular character, they will be gunshy about dealing with them again. They'll assume they've burned a particular bridge and can't get any further. In some cases they do, but more often solutions can be found-- other people can be influenced, other approaches can be used. Strangely enough, apologies can work.

I like to visualize social skills as the equivalent of lockpicking skills for NPCs. Players should balance out their approach to a character by considering what skills of abilities they have that can help with the approach. They can state those things up front, like mentioning a high skill with Etiquette or a knowledge of the Arts, if appropriate. Not that the player's asking to necessarily make a roll based on those, but instead they're making a kind of argument about the scene-- i.e. When I meet with X I'm going to try to put them at ease-- which I can probably do because I have X and Y skills. If I'm on as a player, I'll do that before I actually launch into the conversation. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: it is not a sign of weakness to fall back to the mechanics of one's character sheet. Those skills and points you've spent serve as support for the arguments you're making about how the scene is going to go.

Part of my task as a GM is to filter what players say into what their characters say. If characters have invested in social skills or abilities and mention those, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt about how what they say is taken. Sometimes I'll offer them a take-back (used to represent advanced social skills). In other cases I'll try make explicit the subtext of a particular comment or approach for a player. By virtue of an rpg being a system model we have to make allowances for those things.

The catch is this: if I, as a GM, don't have an understanding of a player's intent before they go into a social situation, I really can't make those kinds of allowances. At that point, I have to take the players completely at face value. So if you're a player, it is worth taking a moment before interacting with an NPC to state what you're trying to do. Not that you have to stick to that course, but at least at the beginning you can help the GM in that way. On the other hand, if you're trying to catch the GM off guard or aren't sure what you want to get out of an interaction, then you don't need to make those statements.

Most NPCs don't exist in a vacuum. I've mentioned their inner lives, but we also have to know something about their daily lives. I find it easiest to remember roles and duties. That's often the first thing a player picks up on-- what job an NPC performs. Related to that, what social level or position they hold. Those traits open up a range of details and allow the player to get a basic impression. They're also a catalyst-- does the NPC fit strongly to the mold of that role or do they act askew from expectations? Do we have the lazy butler or the one so strongly in that role that they turn their nose up immediately at any whiff of impropriety on the characters' part? Do we have the sinister high adviser or one more focused on a game of croquet? These details come easily and often can be enough to give a fairly broad impression to the players.

That impression has huge implications-- as a GM you want to give the players enough cues and materials that they can reasonably play off of and approach the NPCs. I like to mix up matching and countering expectations with NPCs. They shouldn't always throw the PCs off, but they should do it often enough that players learn to take a moment to do an assessment before an encounter. Or at least to be open and responsive when first meeting someone. You don't want the PCs gunshy, but you also don't want them always jumping to the easiest assumptions and running with those.

Beyond those important surface details, I like to know something about the ecology of the NPC. If, as I've said, NPCs don't exist in a vacuum, that means they know other NPCs. Just as in real life, those relations hold significant weight. We learn something about a person in how they act when we're speaking to them. But we learn more when we see how people talk about them when they're not around-- and we learn even more about a person when we see how they talk about someone who isn't there. Those interactions allow a GM to complicate and refine the portrayal of an NPC. You hint at other stories and entanglements. You create a sense that these people have their own real lives.

Two related considerations to this-- consider showing how an NPC interacts with their family and their community. Family forms a set of involuntary bonds for people. How have they dealt with the good and bad of those lives? Do they change their behavior drastically when they interact with them? Meeting an NPCs family can often go a long way to explaining some of their motivations or even their stranger behavior. Likewise, being a member of a community-- neighborhood, religious, social-- can demonstrate an NPCs inner lives. Do they change when they deal with that group? Do they laugh at the ideas of their community or take them dreadfully seriously? Do they search for acceptance from their peers? We place less emphasis on these communities in our lives, but in some settings they're as serious and important as family. For example, on the Third Continent of my campaign, everyone has a faith-- belongs to a cult devoted to a god or gods. People judge, note and react in part based on that. But perhaps even worse to people than being a member of a strange cult would be not demonstrating membership in any cult. That would be taken as a sign of exile and of not being a person who could fit it.

Next Post: Part Two of this discussion

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Campaign Postmortem: Scion (Part Four)

Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part One 
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Two
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Three
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Four

Wrap Up and Overview

The campaign itself lasted about ten months. We had a number of missed sessions due to schedule conflicts and people being out. I'd say we probably ended up with 14 or so sessions IIRC. Maybe more. While I'd begun with a fairly linear concept, I ended up creating a more complicated set of events with several intersecting plot lines.


* Everyone seemed to like their characters. Having Alan and Chris paired up worked well. They had good characters and played off of each other well. Sherri and Shari also managed to create a nice balance of reaction between themselves, a sisterly bond that worked despite their very different backgrounds.

* I decided to let the PCs have essentially whatever resources they wanted. They each had significant wealth as well as the backing of their patron. We had a nice feel where the group could play wish fulfillment-- being able to get excellent service, the finest tables at bars and restaurants, tailored clothing done up quickly, vehicles at a moment's notice and so on. Vegas treats high-rollers well and I wanted to carry that ethos through. That was a nice change from other games where players end up having to scramble and manage those kinds of resources.

* Scion's character building system works well. It does create a nice empowering feeling for the PCs. There's some funkiness with the calculations for Legend (as a fixed stat) and Legend (as an expendable resource. But that only got in the way a couple of times. The idea of Epic Attributes providing both an automatic success as well as a special ability worked well. Most players looked to those rather than the Purview abilities.

* The Virtue System of Scion system worked really well. Usually in Storyteller you get an automatic success when you spend a point of Willpower. Instead in this system you got extra dice based on the value of the appropriate Virtue associated with the action. This did two things. First, each pantheon has a different set of possible Virtues which helps create a distinction between them. Second, players had to take a moment to justify why an action would be associated with a particular virtue.

*We had a lot of mythic stuff going on, but players seemed to handle it pretty well. Some of it was pretty easily recognizable, like the Alberich the Smith who ties into the Ring Cycle. However other details got a little more obscure, like the concept of the Slavic Pantheon and the Arthurian Mythos I threw in with the Fisher King references.

*Players took seriously the idea of Fate-binding. As I mentioned before I think Scion has a really great concept there. In the campaign the party realized that interacting with NPCs meant that over time they could be linked up with their own fates and destinies. They always recognized the dangers in that, and if someone did get linked up, they made sure to take care of them rather than leaving them out to dry.

*The PCs also took their own Mythic roles and duties seriously-- providing largess to others. We spent an hour one session just on the party's work to make a particular restaurant the hit of the strip. I made sure to follow up on that and confirm that their efforts had paid off. I think that's really important-- if players spend time and energy on something, especially as a group, the Gm should have an obligation to revisit those ideas and show the PCs what's happened. The GM also has an obligation not to simply kick over their sandcastles for story effect. Give the players victories.

*Some of the NPCs I came up with on the fly really stuck. I decided Mr. Geier would have hired a researcher for them, so I introduced a guy named Jet Jaguar (that's an old Godzilla reference for those of you not in the know). The PCs loved him and took great care of him. When he got injured late in the game, the PCs got blood in their eyes. A Scion of Sun Wukong from the Chinese Pantheon also drew great affection from the PCs-- she was so totally obnoxious. Finally I liked using Siegfried and Roy as magical gatekeepers for the Norse Pantheon in Vegas. They came off pretty well in the course of play. Plus we had a nice real world reference there.

*The final fight was pretty awesome, from my perspective. I overwhelmed them with the opposition-- and if they hadn't coordinated their actions I probably would have killed a couple of them. The final shot had Alan laying down the dead man's hand in front of the Fisher King at the card game. Shari raises the magic revolver at the Fisher King. We cut to the quiet lake outside the houseboat where the card game's taking place and just hear the sound of a single gunshot.

*I probably over-relied on borrowing from existing fictional sources. While it worked out in the end, it ran the risk of overcomplicating things. I'd borrowed from two distinct books and then had some of my own plot lines running through there. A couple of times I went a little too far off the reservations so that why something was happening wasn't immediately clear. That meant having to insert an NPC or go to the GM's voice to explain things. In particular I'm thinking of the serial killer scene (which borrowed from Sandman).

*I think I probably could have managed the game as well if I'd cut down on some of the plots and connections a little. As we began to roll into the last third I realized how many outstanding threads I had. Some got dropped (the airplanes in the desert thread) and some got resolved at a distance (the Church of the Desert thread). Some I welded together in a kind of hamfisted way. I wanted a particular threat to come up and so had two groups join together in an attack on the PCs. I had a logic to it, but it was a little convoluted. When I looked at it objectively I realized the players would and could only really draw one conclusion-- that certain of the key players were allied. They weren't, but by establishing that connection I had to backtrack and explain why that wasn't the case. While the scene itself was dramatic, it wasn't worth the confusion it generated.

*I like the idea of the rival Scion group. They're presented as adversaries in the basic book, but I modified them a little. However I only used them a little. That might have been for the best, I'm not sure. If I had used them I would have had to cut elsewhere significantly. In retrospect, I could have done with a little more planning on my side on that.

*While I like the Scion system, it does have a couple of real weaknesses. The first comes from the Purview system. These are a set of powers covering the aspects of the various gods. Buying into those associated with your divine parentage costs less. However those abilities seem significantly less potent and useful compared to the Knack system. A character gains a Knack when they buy a dot of an Epic Attribute. Given that the Epic Attributes themselves give benefits, you get more for your money. Most Purviews also require a long action for activation, reducing effectiveness in combat. Then there's the question of balance between the various Purviews. I don't usually need absolute balance, but I do want some parity. Some of the purviews end up being useful, while many would rarely come up in a game. Even if they did, they ended up weak. I'm of the mind that if something is narrow in scope, you make it a little more potent to compensate. I need to look at those when I run this again and see if there's some small alterations I can make...or if that's even needed.

*The other weakness comes from the basics of the combat and action system. Old Storyteller has a system for multiple actions that, while a nice idea, often broke down when PCs got to throwing around big dice pools. The Scion system uses some of the old ST dice mechanics but goes in another direction. The new Exalted 2e system uses the same approach. Scion maps initiative and action timing to a circular display with eight sections or wedges called Tics. Players make an “enter battle” roll. The character with the highest number of successes gets placed in Tic 1-- everyone else is placed relative to that based on successes. That does mean that there can be a fairly large number of Tics between the first and last person in the round-- that will be important later.

Each action a player takes has two costs-- a speed cost showing how many tics the action takes and a Defensive Value (DV) showing how much the number to hit them is reduced by. Players can combine two actions on an action but it costs more speed and DV. When a player takes their action, you move their marker on the chart an equal number of tics. When that tic comes up again, everyone in that wedge takes their action simultaneously. At first I really liked this system-- it had an interesting flexibility and made a significant difference in action choices. I bought a metal pizza pan, marked it up and used magnets with labels to track these things.

However after running several combats with the system several things become clear. First, Speed Kills. A character with a faster weapon will be in much, much better shape. They will have several more opportunities to act over the course of a combat, which is to be expected. But since you also reset your DV to normal when you take an action, it could be hard to wear them down to a manageable level. Second, other actions like activating Purviews and such cost a more speed than attacks and knacks. That means that if you want to do those things, you're going to be waiting a bit before you get to go again. Third, while I liked the chart, it could get in the way-- and it was difficult to make up markers big enough to be visible to everyone and still have room to fit within each wedge.

Overall the system really showed its weaknesses when we did some really big combats. Players had to make choices between their more interesting abilities and simply going for a swack. The difference in speed costs usually made the latter a better choice. On my side of things we also had the problem of the rapidly rising Defensive Values. In this system, Defense wins-- and more abilities seem to support defensive options. To hit someone you have to beat their DV in successes on your attack roll. Generally that means you have to be throwing a little less than twice their DV in dice to have a decent shot (7+ for successes, 10's count as two successes). Most DVs sat at around 7-8. This meant ordinary characters didn't have a real chance of hitting the PCs unless they coordinated-- an action which cost them time an opportunities. It took me a while to kind of work through those numbers and get comfortable with them and I suspect I'll have a better handle on them next time I run this.

*To solve some of these problems the next time I run, I'll probably make up a combat control and reference sheet for everyone. That will breakdown the cost and rules for each action for the players. It will also have space for them to record and track their own combat specific abilities so they don't have to hunt around their sheets. I think that will help speed up a couple of things. The system can be intuitive, but it looks enough like old Storyteller that it is easy to get confused.

I enjoyed this campaign much more than I thought I would, quite honestly. I expected a light breeze through game, but I ended up engrossed in the setting, story and the player characters. Except for a few problems getting a handle on the mechanics and my own penchant for overcomplication, I think it went well. I expect to return to these characters and this setting. I like the idea of having a campaign with three chapters, each set in a different city. Las Vegas had some interesting ideas as a certain kind of place. I look forward to exploring the environment of other cities-- probably one from the Midwest or old South and one from the East Coast. That will give me a chance to work through very different themes and see the evolution of the PCs.

Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part One 
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Two
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Three
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Four

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Campaign Postmortem: Scion (Part Three)

Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part One 
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Two
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Three
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Four

In my last post I talked about the male NPCs I came up with before getting really rolling into the campaign. After I did those, I wrote up a set of female characters. But this point some of the details of the game were starting to gel for me.

Female NPCs

Pamela March-- Ghost eater-- looks for those with gifts. Greedy. Skilled at her Witchy tradition.
(Hoarding, unfair exchange--- False faith, heresy--- Bravery; protection of kin and tradition; skill and mastery)

Another of Prometheus' Sins that I had a name for early on. Had a basic idea and I reference her in mind campaign, but by then they'd killed or incapacitated four of the seven characters. I opted to save her and the last two for the big fight in the end, so I never followed up on this particular plot thread-- I just left it off to the side and had her as a big bad at the end.

Marjani deCosta-- African-American cop. Got mixed up with IA and shit assignments. Strong sense of right and wrong.
(Insurmountable challenges; unstoppable danger-- Contamination, contagion, corruption transmitted--- Regulation, law, self-discipline)

Another dropped NPC. She didn't quite fit when the PCs did run into the cops after a really bad scene at one of the local hotels. Instead I came up with another guy on the fly who felt more correct for the situation.

Rayen Smith-- Gambler turned anti-gambler. Reformer with a proven track record.
(Temptation relieved; avoiding betrayal of self--- Enlightenment, return to faith--- Intuition, guess-work, instinct)

This character came out of some of the this I read and watched about las Vegas-- and how difficult coping with gambling addiction could be. I Wasn't sure what role she'd play in the game, but the character herself felt right. I ended up not suing her anywhere.

Audra Segva-- Sex-worker with a heart of butter. Gotten mixed up with infectious tantric sex training she's immune to but passes on to other folks.
(Lack of rest, wearing-out, exhaustion--- Unreliable, thoughtless, impulsive companions or ties--- Self-development, self-exploration, understanding)

I always have to have some really creepy stuff in these games. This character's plot line ended up being the basis of a couple of really horrific scenes. In the cours eof the game when I looked back on my notes here I realized I could tie this into the Prometheus Sins, by having her assuming the mantle of Lust. However, I decided that she would be all the way there yet and Prometheus would be in the midst of converting her. The PCs managed to intercept her, figure out a way to tame what she was doing and convinced her to leave town.

I also liked this character just for her name.

Luisa Hispolo-- Vigilante group leader. Devoted to fixing things for the put upon service workers.
(Companions, loyal associates or ties, reliability--- Freedom, release, unfettered self-- Hero, the leader; a call to cause)

At the beginning of the campaign, I thought I might delve into the idea of the underclass and the role of service workers in Vegas. However, the level the game ended up running at meant that this was a little too much of a sidebar, so I dropped this idea. Another character never used.

Bridgette Harker-- Wrath. Indie Rocker who is half-ghost. Sold her soul. Determined to steal someone else's-- tied up with Titan Blood. Deadly voice. Kind of Zombie-out.
(Indirect experience, self-deception--- Lust, rape, seduction--- Berserker; destructive if without purpose, kin or community; hardened neutrality; xenophobia & prejudice)

I don't know what I meant by “Zombie-out”. This would be another one of the Sins. She would also serve as a link between the plotline of Trask's creation of an Underworld through his gambling and the Prometheus plot. I thought that was a reasonable connection-- in addition to the fact that Prometheus would want Trask in any case. I set up a couple of investigative opportunities for them to cross paths with her, but we never got to them. Instead I had to Jerry-rig their encounter in a combat. She managed to survive and lasted until the final fight of the campaign.

Idoya Skip-- Fixer and professional assassin with a bad head for money. Constant debt. Burdened by curse in regards to this. Manages to keep head above water.
(Open revelation, enlightenment--- Captivity, bondage, the damped, a caged self--- Enlightenment, return to faith, Value or success through endurance, maintenance)

I liked this character concept right away. There's a certain appeal to the deadly female assassin with personal problems. I also know that some male PCs find “broken” female NPC characters attractive. There's a classic trope in which they can become the rescuer to such characters. Sometimes I try to play off of that, and sometimes I reverse it. As a GM you also have to avoid objectifying such characters-- that they're waiting to be rescued. I want to balance my own adverse reaction to players buying into that role too much against the fact that it works as a classic dramatic story.

In the case of Skip I introduced her early and had her reappear as the PCs seemed to like the idea of the character. Later in the game I tied together a couple of plot threads and linked her up with the Fisher King plot. I realized in retrospect that the choice wasn't the best one. Basically we had established that Trask's step-sister had hidden herself in Vegas under an magically assumed identity. It made sense from a narrative viewpoint that Skip be in that role, since she was one of the few strong female NPCs we had out in circulation at that point. However that also changed some of the basic details of the character that players liked. I ended up not entirely reversing that decision, but redacting it so that she returned to more of her old self by the end of the game. That worked better and helped to create a more satisfying ending to the story.

Solada Moyens-- Wants in at the Fisher King's table-- has killed several potential Queens. Hunted by brother. Wicked nasty-- has one of the original tarot cards, the devil, Zemboah.
(Deceit, lies, falsehood--- Easy to victimize; dupe to that which destroys what is valued most; too slow to act; virtue clouds all else--- Greed, overindulgence and empty seduction;hatred of men;facile lies and betrayal; pleasure for pleasure's sake)

By this point in the creation of the NPCs I'd kind of come up with the skeleton of the idea of how the potent original tarot cards would be vessels for the lost Slavic pantheon. I'd done some online research and had a set of names. They worked really well because of their dualities-- most gods seemed to have two faces that reflected that tarot cards can be upright or reversed. Also, the lack of real substantive details on them meant that I could write them any way I wanted to. I'd made up a character linked to this from the men, intending him to be the major character for that thread.

Then I came to this NPC and I had the idea to create an adversary—trying to use those figures for evil. I also decided that the other representation of the Slavic pantheon would be the various neon and fiberglass sculptures in Las Vegas. I found a number of references to them-- and to graveyards where the worn out ones were dropped off. I ended up dropping the brother detail that I mentioned above as it overcomplicated the situation.

Next post-- last bit on this, an overview of the good and bad things from the campaign.

Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part One 
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Two
Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Three

Scion Campaign Post-Mortem Part Four