Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Plotting Goals

Star Wars offers a picture of what could be a typical, if stunningly functional (in the psychology sense of the term, as in “not DYSfunctional”) adventure party. You have the various members with their respective sets of expertise, all operating in tandem with each other…heck, you even have a good example of how a “paladin-type” character (Obi-Wan, Luke) can get along with mercenary/thief types (Han, Lando)…mainly by the former not being too self-righteous and the latter having (deep down) hearts of gold.

But Star Wars IS a story, not an RPG. If the original movie was an RPG adventure, it would pretty much be one, long railroad all the way to the climactic Death Star battle. Luke says, “I’m not ready to leave the farm.” Bam! GM kills off all his relatives. Han says, “Let’s try to run the hell away from this giant space station.” Bam! Sorry, you’re being pulled in by a tractor beam. Etc., etc. All to set up the characters chance to be “heroes” in the GM’s story.

For a movie (or novel or TV show or comic book or whatever), that is totally appropriate to the story-telling medium. In an RPG it’s pretty damn annoying.

Personally, I was never a great GM at developing “plots” or “storylines.” I was great at running adventure modules, good at riffing off players actions, and a fair hand at character development. But elaborate plots and railroads? Not really. I did much better with “here’s the situation, now let’s watch how it un-folds IN PLAY.”

A lot of the early Vampire the Masquerade adventures (most of which I ran at least once) walked a thin line between “scenario” and “railroad,” often stomping all over the line. Any adventure that has a number of specific “set pieces” runs the risk of simply being a GM’s opportunity to act as director/author with the players doing nothing more than ad-libbing lines in a plot that’s a foregone conclusion. Some gamer groups may get off on this (though why not just form a real theater troupe?) but I consider role-playing to be a COLLABORATIVE effort.

Part of this may be ascribed to my own laziness (I don’t want to have to do all the work), and part of it to “the way I was raised” (my adventure-crafting sensibilities being formed by B/X D&D and the various Old School adventure modules of early TSR). Whatever, that’s just how I roll: fast and loose “plot-wise.”

Which, incidentally, might explain why it’s been such a challenge for me to run some of these new commercial RPGs of the last 15 years or so. Some practically beg for the GM to have an elaborate plot structure for characters to traverse. Without it, players are forced to rely on their own damn selves for generating motivation/impetus to explore the game setting…and players used to site based scenarios or railroady plots have difficulty doing just that.

But that’s all tangential…the reason I bring all this up is a long-winded intro to why I do NOT like the idea of awarding XP based on mission/goal. When I posed the question before about how to award XP for a non-treasure-based / not-just-combat-based adventure game, many MANY of the commentators suggested this type of reward. And, yeah, I was considering it myself for a bit.

But upon further re-consideration I don’t like it. I’m sorry. And NOT just because it’s “arbitrary” or left to GM fiat…because of course, you can write a game reward system to be a set amount if you like…for example “all missions provide 100xp times the average level of the party members” or “every mission provides 500xp per game session it takes to complete the mission” or “all missions provide a 1000xp bonus for accomplishment, with a 500xp bonus if the characters faced mortal combat and an additional 500xp bonus if any of their party members are killed.”

See how easy that is?

Here’s the REAL problem for me: once you set a mission objective or “adventure goal” you start limiting how players interact with the game environment. You start to create a “right way” to play. And that is the antithesis of collaborative role-playing.

For video games, XP bonuses for goals and “quest completion” are great. But video game RPGs are fairly linear by both design and necessity…the good ones are engaging because they have an excellent story/plot and a decent user interface, but they are ALL limited by the programming given to them by their creators. A video game player gets little say in how the plot develops or resolves (one of the reasons Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was so cool is that one received SOME choice in how the ending turned out) simply because the space available in a machine is finite.

The human imagination is not nearly so limited…sure there are the boundaries of language, knowledge, and experience, but sheer creativity provides endless possibility, especially if one refuses to accept those limitations. FOR EXAMPLE:

Player: I’m going to use my “speak with animals” spell to talk to the cave bear instead of fighting it.

GM #1 (a zoologist specialized in bear habits): even though you can communicate with the bear you trespassed into its territory during mating season AND he’s hungry AND bears don’t think like humans anyway…he’s still going to attempt to maul you but you can understand his roars of “food, enemy, food, enemy..”

GM #2 (just going with the random whimsy and magic): make a Reaction roll. Ok, you and the bear sit down and have a long conversation about what’s been going on in the forest lately…you offer him some rations, and he gets you some honey from a nearby tree…

Now, yes, the latter GM in the example is not being extremely realistic, but Dr. Doolittle isn’t anything I’d call “real” anyway.

[Ahhh…"realism" (whatever the hell that means). The bane of RPGs…it’s that “Holy Grail” that’s led to more heated discussions and RPG skill systems than pretty much anything else]

Shit. If folks really wanted “real” would Gamma World have such a sturdy little following? But again, I’m digressing.

Back to the point: when you start setting rewards you start closing down the open-endedness of the RPG possibility. FOR EXAMPLE: Nothing in the classic adventure module G1-3 precludes enterprising characters from making a deal with the giants themselves (provided they have something to offer) allying with them and starting a war campaign against the surface world rulers that originally hired them. Nothing stops the player characters from charming Obmi and making him into a henchman and boon companion. Nothing prevents a sleaze-minded PC from polymorphing into a giant and having a torrid affair with King Snurre’s queenly wife, perhaps enticing her into helping commit regicide.

Yeah, that’s some outside-of-the-box thinking that doesn’t prevent the characters from gaining XP and advancing in level and power (as well they should!) since they still end up with plenty of XP-garnering loot.

But when you start making goals…even BROAD goals (not necessarily “kill Snurre” though in a video game that would probably net you some sort of bonus) like “stop the giants’ raids”…it starts to shut down what the PCs can do and still get rewarded. Unless one wants to simply do XP-awards based on “providing enjoyment to the gaming group,” another arbitrary category frequently found in RPG reward systems that I cannot stand…who’s to say what is going to prove enjoyable and to whom?

So, bottom line…I’m against doing XP for mission goals. In an adventure RPG (and here I mean table-top, not video console) I want the players to be able to exercise a full latitude of action, not constrained by the reward system. Because even though there ARE contrarians like myself that will play against the grain (to our own detriment, dammit!), reward systems DO influence behavior and in-game action. Everyone likes rewards!

: )


  1. If you don't want to inadvertently guide behaviour by creating a marketplace of XP for actions of any kind, I don't see any option other than an entirely arbitrary scheme...

    ... 1d10000 XP per session (mmmm, gonzo randomness!)

    ... 100XP x hours-at-table x current level (fairly predictable participation based - like elementary school)

    ... level up every other session (extremely predictability)

    Hmmm. Perhaps you subconsciously rebel against meta-campaign advancement? You could define a handful of power levels and choose one for any given campaign.

  2. No, no, no.

    SW-as-RPG does not start as the movie does. SW-as-RPG starts in the cantina!

    "The party meets in a tavern..."

    Everything else is backstory!

    And when the party splits up on the Death Star, the PC controlling Obi-wan goes down the wrong hallway and, oops...there's Vader!

    [Never split the party!]

    After a brilliantly noble PC death scene, the GM hands over the NPC Leia for the character to play for the rest of the session. The player likes her so much, BOOM! PC.

    RPGs have a different rhythm, for sure. But the same story elements are still there. The real exception is that the RPG's story comes from retrospection, while a film's story comes from prior planning. The only railroad (which isn't really a railroad) is the mission to save Leia. In an RPG, players could/would make other choices than a screenwriter.

    I think what you're finding is that you need to figure out the real purpose of the rpg you're making. If you're modeling off of the original trilogy, perhaps providing xp for completing a mission (whether it be to rescue Leia, get trained by Yoda, save Han from Jabba, etc.) is something to consider.

    I don't think SW (or perhaps most space opera in general) works well as a sandbox.

  3. Being a GM in a long-running Star Wars campaign (using the D6 rules- still), I tend to agree that the real 'heart' of Star Wars is a story. I myself favor story-based adventures. But I have always tried to make sure that 'story' does not equal 'railroad'. I also do not think that Story elements and a Sandbox setting are mutually exclusive. I've always felt that the argument that Story-based adventures always guide players down pre-determined paths is true only in those GMs with a lack of vision. I also think it is a bit hypocritical to say that Story-Box games do not 'guide' players at all. Any GM who has ever made a dungeon and 'stocked it' with traps and monsters has, in effect, 'guided' the players into encounters with those traps and monsters, to the exclusion of others—unless (of course) every part of a Dungeon setting is left random (which I think is a very rare thing). It is all in how you manage what you have.

    One of the most memorable periods in my Star Wars campaign was essentially a Sandbox. The players had joined the Rebel Alliance and were assigned to a remote sector of space (the Minos Cluster) with the rather vague order of 'Stir up rebellion there'. There were specific NPCs, locations and plot-threads in place when the PCs arrived. They chose where to start and how and things just developed naturally from there. The PCs chose which threads to pick up on and left others unexplored. It was free-form and it was fun and it still 'felt' like Star Wars because they were heroes pursuing the overall goal of defeating the Empire.

    So, Sandbox works. So does Story. Just depends on the GM and the players. As far as how XP is given? It will ALWAYS effect how the game runs. Just as JB pointed out. XP for missions means players will want to do more missions. XP for combat means they will want to do combat. Etc. etc. So I'd say GM choice on that (what you and your players WANT to emphasize), or just the Generic 'you get such and such each session. Period.'.

    As you may tell from my ramblings, I've given this stuff a lot of thought. I don't want to spam any more here or even shamelessly plug my own blog, but if you're interested in some more star wars ramblings, here are a few pots I've made on subjects like this:

  4. Okay, I see what you're saying, but to bring up the Dragonlance rpg again, the way I understood it was that the players get their "xp" by going out and doing something, then making it back home. The players get to choose what that something is. If they want to go and clear a hex of monsters, that's fine. If they want to explore a ruin, that's fine. If they want to get involved in the politics of the great city-state, that's fine. Whatever they do, and whether they succeed or not, if they go there, get involved, and return home, they get their Quest Point. Simple. The only gameplay expectation this creates is that the players are active and want to do stuff.

    The more and more I think about the system, the more I think they got something very right there.

  5. @ Rolo: I will definitely check out the blog when I have a chance. I, too, believe that a space-sand-box is possible (in fact, it's desirable) rather than scripted adventures or space-hulk crawls.

    @ Kelvin: while I'm not familiar with the DL Quest system you describe, I agree that it makes a certain bit of sense (and I'm not just agreeing with you 'cause of your great art contributions to my other project!).

    In fact, I considered something similar in the everyone simply levels up after every game session or every other session...I hate waiting around and counting points. On the other hand, one thing I always liked about B/X was the different rate at which characters leveled up. I also like the idea that XP (experience POINTS) are earned, not simply awarded. It's the gamist side of me, I know.
    ; )