Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Reason to Kill (Addendum)

Well, I can’t sleep. Which is unusual because I can usually sleep anywhere at the drop of a hat. However, I either drank too much coffee today or (more likely) I’ve just been wound too tight because of the stress this whole trip has caused me. Anyway, I might as well throw some follow-up thoughts to my last post.

When I say, look at the conflict you want to portray as central and build around it, I’m not (necessarily) saying you need to write “Raising Kids: The Role-Playing Game” or something. And I’m not saying you need to give up combat systems, either.  I’m just saying:
  1. You need a way to engage the players besides “ooo, this is a neat setting (or story/plot/arc) that I want to explore, “ and
  2. Make that “engagement thing” central in your design priority.

And I’m saying it to myself as well.

All that interesting exploration stuff will appear (if you want it to), in the proper amount, IF you can engage the players. At least, that’s my theory.

Look at the movie Star Wars. I’m sure most of the readers of this blog have watched the original trilogy a couple times. In the first movie, what have we got for a driving conflict? We’ve got this small band of misfits/adventurers fighting against a tyrannical impossible force, yeah? One ship, half a dozen characters (a couple of whom are noncombatants) against hundreds of soldiers, fighters, the Death Star, Darth Vader…even when they get “the Rebels” involved, it still boils down to the main characters’ actions (those other X-Wings are just set-dressing pyrotechnics for all they accomplish in the assault).

The challenge here is finding your courage. It’s something most B/X players might relate to.

The second movie (Empire) is different. Now, the characters are certifiable war heroes. They’ve proven their courage. The war (and the fighting of said war) is backdrop for the real story, the real challenge, namely “can you sacrifice what you hold dear for something that will bring you greater satisfaction?”


Or something like that (it’s after 2am, cut me some slack, folks). Let’s look at the characters:

Han Solo: cherishes his freedom. Is he willing to give it up to begin a relationship with the princess? This is his conflict through the whole film. In the end, he literally loses his freedom in semi-permanent fashion.

Leia: cherishes her role in the Rebellion. Is she willing to give it up to begin a relationship with a scoundrel/rogue like Solo?

Luke: has achieved his childhood dreams of becoming a fighter pilot, joining the rebellion, and becoming a respected hero. Is he willing to give that up (his status as a “great warrior”) to pursue a more mystic journey towards peace and knowledge on the Jedi path? He finds he can only meet the sacrifice halfway, and loses a piece of himself because of it.

Lando: has become a responsible, respected (and apparently wealthy) leader. Is he willing to give it up to “do the right thing,” fighting against the Empire?

[yes, Lando is a main character…he’s like the dude who shows up to the gaming table late and has to bring his PC in halfway through the session]

All these characters in the story face this challenge, and they all meet it with varying degrees of success. It makes for a richer (in terms of character) movie, if not one with the same “wa-hoo” as the first film. It’s still fantasy adventure, it still has fights, but the fights aren’t the focus of the action. That’s not the challenge that’s engaging the protagonists.

Lukas had a lot of disagreement with the director of the 2nd film, by the way (and was unhappy with the profits compared to the costs of the over-budget opus), and returned to his “original recipe” when doing Return of the Jedi. The result feels a touch slap-dash as it ties up the character development of the 2nd while sticking with the action formula of the 1st film: a small band of heroes facing overwhelming odds (Han and Leia against “a whole legion of troops,” Lando against a Death Star and a thousand fighters, Luke against giant monsters, armies of goons, and two Sith Lords).

[*sigh* how many days has it been since my last post mentioning Star Wars? Re-start the tally tracker]

None of this, by the way, is about saying one path/film is better. I’m using these films as examples of potential RPGs due to the way they model inherent parts of RPGs (fantasy adventure + multiple protagonists). If they were RPGs, not films, you could see that film #2 is either “heavily drifted” (to use a Forge term), or else a different game system from films #1 and #3. Film #1 is definitely the most “Old School” of the three: you have a main adventure site, you have encounters with bad guys, you have challenges to overcome, etc. Film #3 is still pretty “Old School,” though with a little extra “role-playing” thrown in (Film #1 doesn’t have much role-playing, only the jocular “in-character” banter).

Film #2 (if transported to the tabletop) has a different set of rules and objectives.  No game role-plays “training”(well, except for Ars Magica). Few RPGs deal with player-to-player romance.  But in the end, it’s neither the Dagobah Boot Camp nor the sweet-sweet-love that is the point of play…the challenge is the characters’ own inner journey/transformation. The shooting of things is pretty much an afterthought.

The first RPG I can recall relegating combat to a (very) subordinate system was the vastly underrated, out-of-print game Maelstrom. Maelstrom (of which I thought I'd blogged before but apparently haven't) is about as fantasy adventure as you can get and is all about the exploration…I’d like to read (or write) books on the game’s setting. Unfortunately, that doesn’t give a GM much direction as to what to do with the thing, and there’s no engagement that comes from that exploration (*sigh*). BUT the Story Engine’s neat game system (and the thing that makes Maelstrom one of the grandfather’s of narrativist RPGs) was it’s imperative that scenes must be about something, and players resolving the conflict inherent in the scene with a single roll, rather than using multiple die rolls to determine the effectiveness of individual actions (i.e. you didn’t roll “to hit;” you rolled to see if you were successful at the scene “objective”). It was all quite brilliant, in a meandering, primordial narrativist ooze kind-o-way.

*ahem* ANYway. Why am I even talking about this shit? Um…besides the fact that the ix-nay on exploration was kind of a (mild) epiphany this evening/morning? Well, I was just thinking about my son. We play a lot of “pretend” games together, including a lot of games with superheroes who “fight” bad guys…but, of course, D has been taught not to actually “fight” other children himself (except when pretending, natch), and often our games involve non-lethal conflict resolution. If someone gets “hurt” there’s usually a pause in play to have the doctor fix them (and to put the injured party in bed and feed ‘em soup, etc.). Sometimes the bad guys get talked into (or spontaneously decide) to become “good guys.” Sometimes everyone just wants to dance. We do a lot of things besides pretending to karate chop someone’s head is the point.

I’ve been working on two games the last month or so, and making good progress on both. One is a post-apocalyptic fantasy based on B/X that has a bunch of new rules designed to encourage more collaboration between players. The other game is A Very Fantasy heartbreaker that is my homage to Holmes Basic (in much the same way as 5AK was my homage to OD&D). The latter is aimed at a “younger” audience, and (I think) has a younger tone. No, not so young as my son (he’s three), but definitely more Susan Cooper than Michael Moorecock.

But I did ask my boy’s input and let him pick most of the monsters that would be included. And yet, as I write the game I keep thinking “neat as this innovative new combat system is (I wouldn’t mind using it in a B/X game)” do I really want to resolve conflicts with the sword all the time? And if the game is not about “battling evil” than what IS it about? Turning evil “from the Dark Side?”

[actually, I know for a fact that’s NOT what the game’s about, since it has a definite objective to play]

Anyhoo…more musings at 3am. Oh, look: they’re serving breakfast! (do they know it’s 3am?)

Yak at ya’ later.


  1. I love your musings - bookmarked. Now if you don't mind me sir embarking on some theorycraft.

    Engagement is critical. To achieve it, it must be varied - so it can adapt to player and vice versa, and so it won't becoming stale and boring.
    There's action. And exploration. But truly, it is the love of creating of anything - for players and GMs alike.
    So, what can players create?
    - characters and their personalities (i.e. characters)
    - multiple characters thus! (companions, friends, even enemies!)
    - description - of their character, of its reactions, of their thoughts
    The more you spend creating them, the more you'll love them - and that's psychology.
    Maybe I should answer with a blog post :P

  2. I think you, via your 3am ramblings, touched on 3rd important point.

    3. What must the characters (in a movie, book, or RPG) give up/sacrifice in order to proceed with the story or develop as characters?

    I think I'll answer that with blog post, too.

  3. Sorcerer is built entirely around point 3. "What are you willing to do for Power?"

  4. Have you considered reading my Advanced Guide on the matter? Engagement is prime; the whole presentation of the campaign has to be based around the players being free to seek their own means of immersion - without actively seeking to destroy the immersion of other players in the process.

    This works better when we're not told how to behave, but rather enabled. Talk about more than just what's needed - extrapolate on the 'something' better that needs to be installed. Offer chapter and verse, rather than broad strokes.