Tuesday 31 May 2011

C is for Choices, Context, and Consequence (Part I)

If I were asked to give advice to a new Game Master – or even an old hand looking to better her game – the thing I would go on about is the interplay between choices, context, and consequences.  In my experience, anyone who understands this interplay will be at least an adequate GM…and no one who does not, no matter what their other fine qualities, is never really satisfying.

From hereon out, I’m going to dispense with the “IMHO”s and “IME”s, and assume that you, the Gentle Reader, are smart enough to know that I am talking about my own opinions and experiences.  And, if I am wrong in that assumption, feel free to Comment and tell me so!

At the most basic level, a choice is a decision.  Do we follow the path, or go off into the woods?  Do we explore the swamp in search of the ruins of Zondo’s Castle of Phantasmal Fun?  Which passage do we take at the intersection?  Should we parlay with these goblins?  Do we trust them?  Do we run from the floating gaseous eyeball of death rays…or do we fight it?

Context is the information that informs a choice.  The choice to follow the path or go off into the woods is meaningless unless one has some idea what each choice means.  Do bandits lay ambushes along the path?  Is there some lost ruin supposedly hidden in the woods?  Is there some landmark the characters can make for?  Are they merely trying to cut off a wide curve of road they know is ahead?  Are they trying to throw off pursuers?  Is there a chance of getting lost if they leave the road?

Consequences are what happen as a result of making a choice.  You follow the path, and arrive at the village.  Or you meet some bandits.  Or you take to the woods and get lost.  Or escape the wraiths that are pursuing you to recover a magic ring.

Ideally, the consequences of any given choice lead into new choices.  Rather than simply arriving at the village, you arrive at a village where a man is being beaten by a crowd.   Do you intervene?  When you run into the bandits, do you flee?  Fight?  Let yourself be robbed?  If you are lost in the woods, what do you do?  What do you discover?  What do you do about it?  Having escaped the wraiths, you come out of the woodland near a farmer’s field.  Do you accept his invitation to dinner?  What do you tell him about the strange folk asking about you?

When your game seems to be lagging, it is most likely due to either a lack of apparent choices or enough context to make those choices meaningful.  The easiest way to renew the energy of a game session is to interject a new choice, or to provide some information that enhances the context of already existing choices. 

I have heard folks complain about the amount of background information available in some published adventures, “with no means for the players to learn it”.  Huh.  Of course there are ways for the players to learn that information!  One of your major jobs in presenting a published scenario is to examine that background – that context – and figure out how the players can learn bits and pieces of it.  Then, when play falters, you have something more to ratchet up the excitement than another wandering monster.

(Not that there is anything wrong with a sudden combat.  One of the reasons that combat is popular in role-playing games is that the choices are clear, both in context and in consequence.  The context is, “That bugbear is trying to kill you!” and the consequence is “If you don’t stop him, he will!”  Much of the beauty and excitement of combat can be understood by thinking of it in these terms.  They will also help you to devise more interesting “combat encounters”, by encouraging you to vary the context [often by location, such as on giant gears, requiring different choices], or especially by outcome [when innocents might die, or when your opponent wants something other than to slay you – to capture you, perhaps?]

It isn’t just background information that provides context.  One important part of context is the “footprint” of creatures in the game world. 

A creature whose presence is foreshadowed is often more effective than one who is simply thrown at the PCs out of the blue.  Let us take a basilisk as an example.

With one GM, the basilisk simply appears as an encounter, perhaps turning one or more characters to stone before being ultimately slain.  For the players, it may seem like a GM-driven “gotcha!”, and whatever deaths occur are probably going to feel anti-climactic.  How could they feel otherwise?  The players have had no chance to anticipate the encounter.  Their choices leading to the encounter lack the context needed to make them feel meaningful.

With another GM, however, the players get to hear fearful goblins speak in hushed tones about the “Mistress of the Dark Chasms”.  They see the lizard-like drawings the goblins make before the altars where they worship Her.  They find the broken bits of goblins turned to stone by the creature, and may even see where it rubs its skin against the rocks (including, perhaps, a cast-off skin?).

Now the players have some context with which to base their decisions.  They can stock up on mirrors, try to match their magic to the challenge, or bypass the area entirely.  The cast-off skin might give them the idea that the basilisk could be blind at some point, and thus far less dangerous – some divination might be in order.  Finally, if they do enter the Dark Chasms, and some of the PCs are petrified by the monster, it no longer feels like a “Gotcha!”  The outcome is a natural-seeming consequence of player choices.

As another example, imagine that you are devising a campaign milieu in which you imagine that a great deal of the action will take place as wilderness exploration.  How do you control pacing?  How do you make the wilderness interesting?  Once more, our old friends, Choices, Context, and Consequences come to your aid.

The main bane of wilderness (and, to some extent, town) adventures is that they are seemingly-open-ended.  The choices seem to be limitless, which actually makes it very hard to choose.  After all, it isn’t enough to simply select a compass direction and trudge along…we want our choices to be meaningful.  And to be meaningful, they require context.

We can first provide context by including some landmarks.  Landmarks in a role-playing game do the same thing they do in the real world.  They provide us something to steer by, to aim toward, and to fix our location with.  If you are lost, you can look for higher ground, find a landmark, and correct your course.

Landmarks can have reputations that provide further context. 

The Old Forest is known to be queer, and the Withywindle that runs through it is the heart of its queerness.  Because the hobbits in The Fellowship of the Ring know this, they know also that they should be trying to get through the Old Forest as quickly as possible, and to avoid the Withywindle (even if they cannot do so successfully).  These rumours not only inform the hobbits’ choices, but they foreshadow their encounters with Old Man Willow and Tom Bombadil.  

Likewise, in a role-playing game, if the great mountain range known as the Trollshanks is said to be home to trolls and giants, the players know that they are likely to encounter those creatures, and prepare accordingly.  If they know it is famous for its steep cliffs and deep gorges, they will prepare climbing equipment, or be prepared to make choices to go around.  If they know further that a rich dwarf mine was located there, that has since fallen to evil, they will also have motive to actually enter the area.

Among other things, context (1) foreshadows potential encounters, (2) foreshadows potential rewards, (3) allows the players to set goals, (4) allows the players to understand the goals of other creatures within the game milieu, (5) gives clues that allow for “aha!” moments when the players put things together, and (6) makes choices meaningful because context foreshadows consequence.

Monday 30 May 2011

B is for Bennies Before Balance

I have recently heard someone complain that “sandbox” was an elitist term….which, frankly, left me nonplussed.  In my not-so-humble opinion, games are either driven by the decisions of the players (sandbox games) or the needs of an overarching plot (plot-driven games).  As a big advocate of a GM’s right (and responsibility) to say No, I fully endorse that any GM should run the type of game he or she prefers.  So long as you can find interested players, no one can tell you you’re wrong!

What I’d like to talk about today is Bennies – those little, unexpected, bonuses that come about through playing role-playing games.  In early editions of D&D, these bennies might have included finding a special magic item, or special gear, that makes your character more powerful.  In the early, sandbox-ier, days of rpgs, this sort of benny made perfect sense.  Playing more, and playing better, meant more and better rewards.  In addition, earlier systems used a shallower power curve and the sort of broad-based balance that easily supported these extras.

(In my own home game, I recently decided that the participating characters all became Trained in Profession: Sailor as a result of in-game action.  Although this “benny” is equivalent to only 1 skill point in game terms, it negates a -4 penalty to related skill checks, and was well received at the table.)

Some more recent games – most notably the WotC versions of D&D – have taken a narrower view of balance, with specific guidelines as to what characters at any particular level should have.  This would seem to work counter to the idea of bennies, because any benny sufficient to have an in-game effect is also perforce sufficient to “throw off the math”.

I would like to suggest that this need not be so.  Indeed, that it need not be important, even if it is so.

Especially if you are running an “adventure path” type scenario, rather than a sandbox, there is very little cost to granting bennies.  After all, if you run through a campaign over a period of six months, when the seventh starts, you start with a fresh slate.  Meanwhile, so what if a few fights are easier (and take less time!) than expected?  So what if the players can bypass your skill challenge?  There is no point to giving bennies that don’t have some effect on how the game plays.  And, when earlier clever play means you get an additional boost now, the players get a sort of shiny, glowing feeling.

The converse, of course, is that, if they don’t do well, they don’t get the benny.  Maybe they don’t even get the wealth-by-level guideline treasure.  And that is cool, too.  Consider it a “negative benny”, if you will.  Decisions mean more when they have ramifications down the line.  Even if that does mean that things are that much harder later.  Even if it does mean that the PCs lose.

Balance only takes you so far, in my experience and in my opinion.  At the end of the day, as a player, I want my decisions to have consequences, good and bad, both for me and for the campaign world.  Bennies are more important than balance.  But you need to strike a “balance” between the two!

(Sorry....this is a bit of a wandering post.  I suppose I should have called it "B is for Blathering"!)

Saturday 28 May 2011

A is for Animals (or Lions, Tigers, & Bears, Oh My!)

When devising a setting for a role-playing game, some people might think considering local animals unimportant.

I do not.

I try to remember that the mundane is as important as the mysterious.  For instance, I will mention animal scat, deer tracks, flights of birds, bird calls, etc., while on a wilderness trek.  Why?  First off, I want to ensure that the world feels "alive" -- things are where they should be.  There are mice in the ruins, birds in the fields, and a fox in the henhouse.

Secondly, this allows for some quick action within the game.  On a riverboat, a stag is sighted on shore.  A quick bet is made on whose shot can bring it down, and there will be venison for dinner.  Hearing wolves howl in the distance need not presage an instant attack -- the PCs will travel this wild area again.  Without the foreshadowing, though, an encounter with wolves can seem rather "out of the blue".  Likewise, a partially-eaten deer carcass can indicate the presence of wolves to wilderness-minded sorts, like rangers and druids.

Finally, including animals on a regular basis prevents "ringers" from being obvious.  If you never mention ravens, then that raven is obviously a familiar or spy.  If you never mention rabbits, that you do so now means there's a wolf-in-sheep's-clothing lurking nearby.  That you never mention wolves is a sure sign that the one you are encountering now is more than half likely to be a werewolf.

Some games/Game Masters take this even farther.  Why have horse, when you can have firehooved scalehorses?  Why have bears when you can have hardgrapple biteybears?

The answers are the same -- unless there is something "normal" in the world (as the world defines "normal"), immersion is damaged.  If everything you encounter is monstrous, you will respond to everything as though it were a monster.

Sorry, but No Thank You.

My game still has room for lions, and tigers, and bears.  And songbirds.  And mice.