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explanation does not equal excuse
So this is my final post for this blog. I started this last year when they added the blogging module; I wanted to see some interesting RPG topics examined. Over the last year+ I've seen some great blogs start, roll for a little bit, and then die. I've watched those subscriptions stop popping up over time.
Overall I think the blogs-at least on the RPG side- don't work as well as they could. They get overlooked and probably fall off most user's front page. Certainly I get more feedback, thumbs, and discussion when I post to a general forum (though only marginally). There's no good way to search the blogs or to hunt back through them. I'm certain there's great material falling down the memory hole.
Since Feb 2011 I've posted 56 essays- between 1200-2000 words apiece I'd say, so that's a significant volume. Below is a list of links to those posts
1. Imaginary Cities
2. The Place of Dead Games
3. How Much Does a Panzer Weigh?: Supers & WW2
4. What's in a Gnome? Fantasy Race-ism
5. Showing Victory
6. Conspiracies! The List That Was Thursday
7. Directing the Game (Part One)
8. Directing the Game (Part Two)
9. Directing the Game (Part Three: fini)
10. Death and the Play-Den
11. Five Mookish Thoughts
12. Trader to the Crown
13. Mono no aware and the role-player
14. Cutting Words: Thoughts on Social Combat in RPGs (Part One)
15. Raiding the Relaunch for RPG Ideas
16. Rebooting a Property for Play
17. Mice, Mercenary, Mood Management & Microscope
18. Taking Moorcock's Advice on Games
19. Legend of the Fading Suns
20. Legend of the Fading Suns: Sample Houses
21. Why Buy Settings?
22. Constructing Classes: Thoughts from Homebrew Game Building
23. Constructing Classes: Approaches from Homebrew RPG Building
24. Dreamreading the Dictionary of Mu
25. Atelier Auzumel: Alchemical Campaign Building
26. Building the Alchemy Campaign: Shop and Character
27. Sharing and Play
28. How Not to Rise to the Challenge
29. Brewing the Alchemy Campaign: Last Notes
30. Hulks for Gulags & Confessions of a Bad Gamer
31. Emulation & Beyond: More Thoughts on RPGs & Video Games
32. Character Creation: Work, Labor or Craft?
33. RPG Game Changers
34. The GUMSHOE Companion: RPG Wishes
35. Combat Complexities
36. Cataclysms & Catastrophes: Disastrous Campaign Frames
37. Why I Hate NPCs
38. WhineSHOE: Rethinking GUMSHOE
39. City Building with Microscope: Ideas & Campaign Frame
41. The Best Thing to Happen to RPGs (Guest Post)
42. Let Us Now Praise Famous Players
43. RPG Lessons from 2011 (and more)
44. Goals (Gaming and Otherwise) for 2012
45. They Steal the Princess Again?
46. State of the Campaigns
47. Proxies and Parodies: What Do Fantasy Races Do?
48. Sandboxes & Finales
49. Another Inevitable Post on Railroading
50. We Built this City on 250 Points
51. Cracking Mystara: Ten Last Thoughts
52. Crimson Skies & L5R: Another Hacking Fit
53. To Arms: Thoughts on War in Fantasy RPGs
54. In Their Hands: Building Player Materials
55. Build a Better City? Generics & Genres
56. When the Last Sword is Drawn: Samurai Thoughts
Thanks to everyone who has generously read, commented, and thumbed on these posts. I will continue to blog off-site at Age of Ravens.
explanation does not equal excuse
CAN I HAVE A KATANA?
This week I wrote on samurai. I don't know exactly why- I suspect some of it came from Hida Mann's heretical suggestion that the newest edition of L5R is superior to L5R 1e. Then there were Aramis' awesome session reports for Blood & Honor. I saw some other posts in the blogosphere on the topic...all of which really got me jonesing for a samurai game. So I went with samurai week-
Kami & Katanas: Samurai RPGs
Samurai Bibliography: Useful Books for GMs
Bushido: Old School Samurai
Ge Koku Jo
WHY I LIKE SAMURAI
I think it worth considering from time to time what you actually like about a genre. Running fantasy, sci-fi, or horror campaigns you can lose sight of what drew you there in the first place. In this I’m not necessarily talking about the actual history, but the what I love from the conventions- as depicted in films, books, and games.
*Code of Conduct: Samurai games offer a set of behavior codes players can accept. It is difficult to legislate morality in an rpg. Often systems to handle this come off as punishing and adversarial. Various World of Darkness games require the player to take tests or suffer penalties to their specific “morality” track. These abstract and sketchy systems lead to communication rifts between player and GM. The results may seem arbitrary. Samurai games on the other hand, have a clearer and more unifying sense of the codes of behavior and conduct. Great stories can come from the dilemmas posed by the gap between desires and those codes.
*Colorful: I remember when I saw Ran and the colors blew me away. I know a decent amount of that’s ahistorical, but I love the idea of forces with brightly painted uniforms and vivid banners. The colors and patterns on kimonos and other outfits fascinate me. I used to own all of the Dixon Men-at-Arms series covering the Samurai. If I had to paint only one genre of miniatures for the rest of my life, it would be samurai.
*No Armor: Perhaps a little ironic given the point above, but I like the relative scarcity of armor in the genre. War is the time for armor, but most fights, duels and small scale conflicts arm opponents with a sword and the clothing on their back. That makes the fights deadly and encourages a creativity to the conflict.
*Echoes of the Musketeer: Samurai games often seem to me to be more serious versions of a swashbuckling campaign. Unarmored or lightly armored swordsmen of skill dueling and leaping around. Social status and class serve as an important factor in both. Duty, loyalty, and right action can be supported or challenged, depending on the nature of the authority. There’s less direct humor and slapstick perhaps in the Samurai campaign.
*Distance: At the same time, the setting remains foreign enough that play is fairly open. GMs can and should strive for verisimilitude over simulation. A musketeer games carries a degree of “western” baggage.
*Aesthetics: I love that non-fighting skills have a significant place in the setting. An appreciation for beauty, a sense of craftsmanship, a simplicity of approach- these are lovely hallmarks. They help make this more than this a flashing swords genre. Certainly Western historical genres have some of this (romantic poetry for example), but the samurai genre embraces it.
THE L5R REVOLUTION
I liked Bushido and Oriental Adventures, but never really felt press to run them. The samurai games we did play and run were short and filled with fantasy. L5R changed my mind- it gave me a cool and consistent world that I wanted to run right away. I loved the relatively compact realm and cohesive story. Rather than spinning out wider, L5R made strategic choices about what it included.
*Ahistorical: L5R breaks away from the yoke of history. Yes, Oriental Adventures had Kara-Tur but that never felt fully fleshed out. Instead it felt patchwork to me, especially when it got ported to the Forgotten Realms. It also smashed things together in equal measure. Legend of the Five Rings draws influence from other Asian cultures for the various clans, but it never loses sight of being a samurai campaign. Many players feel uncomfortable with historical games. Some don’t like ‘constraints’ of history or worry about getting things wrong (or even offending). L5Rsays you don’t need to worry about that. You don’t have to sweat the small stuff.
*Gender Roles: Though it can be inconsistent about this at times, L5R generally allows full and equal play opportunities for female characters. There are matriarchal clans and the rules provide numerous examples of strong female characters the equal of men. Often they’re even in reasonable armor. That gender equity’s built in, rather than requiring hand-waving by the GM. That’s the kind of approach I’ve always tried to take with my other campaigns, so L5R works for me.
*The Clans: The Great Clans of L5R provide easy to pitch concepts. I can describe any clan in a sentence or two and players will remember that. Add to that the visual distinctions and you have a winning combo. Once players know the clans, you get to work one more level down and explain the families among those clans. It isn’t long before players remember and can respond NPCs instinctively.
*Articulated Codes: I love that the clans share the Bushido code, but perceive it differently. Each clan has some virtues they value and some they regard as less essential. That’s a brilliant device.
*Magic: I don’t love the lumping together of the various distinct faiths of Japan into the “Shintao” of L5R, but most of the time it works. In particular it allows Shugenja a role and purpose beyond simply being casters. Making them generally ritual and spiritual advisors gives them an added gravity and weight.
*Diplomacy: More than most games, especially fantasy games, L5R finally made social classes compelling and dangerous. Diplomats and ambassadors may more restrictive fields of battle, but they can do more damage than a simple sword strike. That’s the way it should be and L5R raises the bar for these kinds of player options.
FILM & SOUND
Kurosawa spoiled samurai cinema for me. It isn’t that he set the bar too high with his staging, craftsmanship, and artistry. Rather that he used the samurai film to tell humanist stories, “a preoccupation with the human elements of a movie.” In this he managed to create depth, sympathy, and emotion in a genre not associated with it. That made watching other cheaper samurai films- Shogun’s Ninja, Lone Wolf & Cub, Hanzo the Razor, Death Shadows- more difficult because of the focus on the brutality and violence. The message in so many of these films seems to be about a moral wasteland, the inevitability of violence, and the annihilation of the self. I try to watch everything I can, but films which revel in the gruesome I play only slight attention to. There are many great samurai films. Here are ten I’d pick as a good set to watch in prep for running a samurai campaign:
Kuroneko: A good combination of ghost story and samurai action.
Samurai Rebellion: Introduces some of the complexities of the social politics while also offering insight into the daily lives of conventional samurai.
Onmyoji: The supernatural, conspiracies, and as close to an actual shugenja as we’re ever going to see on the screen. The sequels pretty fun as well.
The Seven Samurai: Has to go on the list for a look at a grounp getting slowly picked off.
Yojimbo/Sanjuro: Great characters and intriguing plots. Worth watching for how you’d model some of these complications at the table.
Taboo: A striking film and not to everyone’s taste. Importantly it offers insight into the social dynamics of the samurai caste.
13 Assassins: Worth watching for considering how to set up and stage combats.
Dora-Heita: A goofy and fun story chronicling the arrival of a drunken magistrate to clean up a town. Given how many L5R games use magistrates as a basis, worth watching.
Dororo: Just ok, but has some interesting bits and fun fights. On the list because of the fantasy elements.
Red Beard: Not a samurai film, but my favorite Kurosawa movie. Insight into the characters and culture. Great for informing NPC creation.
Also, if you’re looking for samurai soundtracks to use while running a game I recommend the following. Some have more Chinese or Asian themes, but work in the context. Genji: Dawn of the Samurai (Tomoatsu Kikushi & Seiichi Negi); Jade Empire (Jack Wall); The Hunted (Kodo); Guild Wars: Nightfall (Jeremy Soule); Otogi 2: Immortal Warriors (DoRe); Onimusha 2 (Taro Iwashiro); Okami (Masami Ueda & Hiroshi Yamaguchi); Nobunaga’s Ambition Online (Kenji Kawai); Kengo 3 (Takayuki Nakamura); Jubei Ninpucho: Ninja Scroll(Kaoru Wada); and Heavenly Sword(Nitin Sawhney). You may have to edit out some of the more goofy bits from the video game soundtracks.
THE RONIN PROBLEM
Man I don’t like ronin. That’s weird given the romanticized version in so many films and stories. Usually they’re the last inheritors of the spirit of bushido, the practical character who can see past rules, or the lovable buffoon. They reject the existing structures and establishments. The problem I have with them is that they throw away so much interesting material. They avoid real dilemmas of choice and duty, instead substituting more physical conflicts over survival and murder. Players by and large suspect and reject authority- they tend to resent orders and obligations. A samurai campaign suggests virtues, duties, clan loyalties, and service to your lord. It restricts and makes the choices more difficult and more meaningful.
Ronin look like every other standard fantasy PC. That makes them more boring. An all-ronin game, unless the players agree they serve a higher goal- just feels like an outlaw game, and maybe the group should be playing Wild West. Worse can be the single ronin among a group of samurai; you’ve built in some real acrimony there. The GM may have to handwave pretty hard to keep fights from breaking out. As John Wick suggests in Blood & Honor, being a ronin ought to be awful: with no one to support you, no respect, no acknowledgement. But what GM’s actually going to subject a player to that consistently? In my experience ronin leaning players want to have their rice cake and eat it too.
explanation does not equal excuse
NOW LEAVING THE CITY
I've finally finished my reviews of Flying Buffalo’s Citybook series (Citybooks: The Review List). Going through reminded me how much good play material I’d gotten from those books. In the end that's my scale for a product's success- how well it informs or assists actual play at the table. In the case of the Citybooks, the best led to great adventures. Those entries shared several characteristics: interesting NPCs; a small twist; a basic premise shifted in a novel way; and several suggestions for different directions to take the material. With that in mind I have a few more thoughts on the series as a whole and on urban sourcebooks.
MAKE MINE GENERIC
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with generic RPG sourcebooks, especially for fantasy games. In the early days companies put out waves of alternate, additional, or variant products. Most of these boiled down to house rules, homemade monsters, and overly complicated new systems for niche areas (i.e. The Compleat Alchemist). Even when they presented world and setting material, it lack flavor or filled out with random tables. I ended up burned by too many early Judges Guild products. As a result I ended up avoiding many good product lines, for example Mayfair’s Role Aids line.
Instead I bought materials from particular settings and worked to adapt those (the Gazetteers, Warhammer Fantasy, MERP, Shadow World, Hârn). And by adapt I mean steal and rework anything interesting. Those books had distinct character, but at the cost of requiring serious conversion. I suspect my continual move away from detailed system mechanics over the years has come at least in part from my not caring about the details in those books. They got in the way- I wanted the premises, cultures, plots, puzzles, and characters from them. Most of the time that didn’t require knowing the stat blocks; monsters I could make up. I didn’t need the crunch of their write ups.
COLLAGE, MOSAIC, REMIX
I believe anything can be adapted- I based a fantasy campaign on Masks of Nyarlathotep and ran The Enemy Within using GURPS. Some materials, obviously, offer more hurdles than others. Different settings and systems have vastly different assumptions. Consider the ultra-low magic and brutality of combat in Hârn. I loved some that setting's details, especially the various fighting chapters of the war gods Agrik and Larani. I crammed that into a corner of my campaign world where I was already using ideas from the high mythic of Runequest and Glorantha. I’m still trying to patch and bandage that particular combination. Sometimes the assumptions arise from the presentation. Anything from ICE (for Rolemaster or MERP) tended to crazy overpower when you examined the stats. Magic items, high sorcery, and cosmic-level demons rules the supplements. For RM so much ended up represented abstractly, with numbers everywhere. There are no interesting traps or locks- they’re defined only in terms of numbers to disarm, difficulty to spot, and effects dealt. I love RM for the neat maps and cool treasure, but so much of it is useless, except for the rare setting that brings something new to the table (Gethæna: Underearth Emer).
Ironically the strength of these items lies in their specificity. Those constraints give rise to more interesting concepts IMHO than most totally generic supplements offer. That may be why I appreciate the Citybooks so much. They have limits in theme and scope which makes the entries interesting. They also give the ideas enough space to grow, making them more generally adaptable. That’s one of the huge flaws in Citybook VII- valuing quantity over quality and depth. I haven’t yet written up my reviews of the generic products Eureka and Masks, but they share some of those problems. Other generic books take a broader, almost meta-approach. I don’t need to know the population of a city broken down into hundreds of categories. I don’t need to know all of the shops. I do want a map of the city, but I don’t want/need to know what every business is. I want to be able to paint a rich picture of the place with the minimum of brushstrokes and effort.
I want to be the Bob Ross of gamemastering.
CITIES ON THE LOST HORIZION
While I like Citybook I, I really love the later volumes with strong themes. Most of these strike the right balance between focusing the material and offering ideas open enough for most games. I think more Citybooks could be produced. Certainly we’ve seen many new urban sourcebooks over the years (for example products on this list Incomplete Cities: Sourcebooks for City Building). Maybe it could be done without the “Citybook” name- perhaps as web or Kickstarter project. I still think there’s a need for strong generic projects that don’t feel generic. I’ve gotten so much excellent use out of the CB materials, I’d love to see more.
My suggestions for additional volumes:
Citybook VIII: Hub of Industry: Sourcebook focusing on the manufacturing and industrial parts of the city, bordering on steampunk in its execution (workhouses, mudlarks, the Vats, the Plant, robotics factory). These kinds of themes have grown since the CB series came out. You could consider waste disposal systems, mad scientist supplies, social welfare in the city, perhaps the Calculational Engine underground.
Citybook IX: Ivory Towers: This would contain establishments dedicated to teaching and training of all kinds. You’d begin with entries dedicated to different kinds of classic academies (Universities, Schoolhouses, Magic Colleges, Religious Schools). Next you’d have narrower and more specialized kinds of training (Thiefly Schools, Duelist Training, Hidden necromancy, Underground Medical Training, etc.). Finally you’d cover all of the secondary establishments serving those schools (Professional Plagiarists, Magical Cram Tutors, Secret Libraries, Youth Hostels, and so on). These kinds of academies are a staple of fantasy fiction, from Harry Potter to The Name of the Wind to Rats and Gargoyles.
Citybook X: Distant Places: This would be a more broadly conceptual sourcebook. Each section of the book would focus on unique establishments for different regions (desert cities, arctic cities, mountain cities, jungle cities, flying cities, etc). You would pick a couple as the most common and then have a catch-all section. Perhaps the last grouping could include high magic cities, those filled with wonder. Or you could have one covering cities catering to adventurers, the "dungeon entrance" city. These lie outside of major ruins and serve those who plumb the depths (Pavis, Parlainth, Lesserton & Mor). These would have unique establishments to aid explorers (trap smiths, map makers, item diviners, artifact counterfeiters).
Citybook XI: Otherlands: Sourcebook split into sections, each covering establishments from the cities of different races: Orcs/Goblins, Elves, Dwarves, Haflings, misc. This might be too narrow an approach- or at least it wouldn’t be useful to all GMs. It would require the editor to be really careful. Entries would have to straddle the line between being specific to that culture and also adaptable elsewhere.
For the most part, the Citybook series works for me. I want ideas and plots I can easily use and reuse across a variety of games. On the other hand, I also understand gamers who need to have all of the details and mechanics laid out. The citybooks have maps for nearly every establishment, offering specifics of the layout. But honestly in the two decades+ I’ve been using these books I have never referred to or used the maps. Never.
One question has been nagging at me while I’ve done this review series: could you do Citybook-style material for another genre? On the one hand, it ought to be possible. You ought to be able to create the same kinds of businesses for a Supers, Horror, Modern, or Sci-Fi game. More easily you could do that for narrower genres like Wild West, Steampunk, or Cyberpunk. On the other hand, my gut tells me that wouldn’t work. You need hooks into the actual premises of the specific game. Delta Green is very different from Buffy the Vampire Slayer despite both being horror. Ashen Stars and Diaspora are vastly different sci-fi beasts. Urban entries for one probably wouldn’t work for the other. There’s also the question of how characters interact with the urban backdrop in the different settings.
I don’t know and I need to think about what other genre Citybooks would look like. The excellent Damnation City offers a possible approach. Though it is pretty deeply steeped in Vampire, it has useful material and entries not unlike those of the CB at the back. Creating Citybooks for a particular line or setting would be easier- for example, I’d love a CB-style urban sourcebook for Changeling the Lost…
explanation does not equal excuse
In my recent geeklist- Secrets, Rumors, and Hearsay: Player-Facing RPG Materials- I tried to pull together various rpg products which included player-facing materials. I have a couple more thoughts on the topic. More than handouts, these products give players rich stuff to play with. They offer something physical and tangible. The present a living puzzle which different players can address in different ways. Some add to the verisimilitude of a setting, presenting an artifact from the game world itself. They can give expertise to the players. Even importantly, they give players control allowing them to make choices based on that material.
So I’m fond of this kind of stuff, especially when well crafted. The published stuff I mentioned is all pretty good- if more difficult to port over to another campaign. Conversion and change up can be difficult- although with more electronic materials out this, this process has been made easier. One suggestion mentioned by Eric Dodd (Red Wine Pie) is the possibility of materials from one game being used wholesale as artifacts for another. In this case, notes or handouts from a 1920’s campaign being found by a group of modern CoC investigators. I’ve done that once, where the play notes of a previous PC group served as the backdrop and backstory for a group of later PCs.
FLIP IT OVER
Of course one the dangers of player facing materials is that it can overwhelm your players. Especially if provided in a dense chunk, a larger booklet or folio, players may be intimidated. I’ve said before that a GM shouldn’t count on players having read material you’ve given them. That’s a practical fact- people’s schedules, levels of interest, and even learning styles can impact this. So you’re left with a choice of penalizing players for that or trying to find an approach that takes that into consideration. In some ways, larger player-facing materials may create a split within a group- between those who wish to engage with the material away from the table and those who don’t. If some players become experts in the material, they can drive the game, pulling the other PCs along.
That’s not to say that either position is bad, but that GMs have to consider that when handing out player-facing material. That can start simply with the physical nature of the material. If you don’t have enough copies of something, then some players will be stuck waiting or will have to listen as another player narrates, which defeats the purpose. One alternative could be to have the object or material broken up, with a part for each player to digest. Then the players can do some negotiating and synthesis at the table. I played in a game where the player text was a tape-recording. It was a great starter device, with a dynamite feel, but the GM didn’t have a transcription ready as well. That meant we had a break of weeks before we actually had something like that in hand, losing a good deal of the power of the device. It ended up more a novelty than a significant tool for the GM.
The other basic fact I often forget is reading takes time. If you hand out written materials at the table, that brings the scene to a halt. Saying “don’t read this now” undercuts some of the excitement of the discovery. I think that the best places to drop in this stuff are at the beginning or end of a session. The beginning can allow the players to develop a plan and follow up on it; the ending means players can read it outside the pressure of the game’s clocks. Perhaps they’ll stick around and go over it, perhaps they’ll take it home.
TWO SOLID APPROACHES
I can see two really good approaches to handling player facing material- both, of course, demonstrated by a Robin Laws product.
Piecemeal: The end goal is a larger body of player facing material, but as a GM you dole that out in pieces over time. Each piece should be significant, standing on its own. It should have enough material that the players can wrestle with it and figure things out. As they get more pieces, they can start to build connections. The Armitage Files takes this approach. Each document is a couple of pages long. Individually they offer ideas for a mystery and hint at the meta-plot. By breaking the full player text apart, the group has a chance to digest the material.
Consider crafting a longer document and then cutting it apart. Part of the puzzle with be figuring out the chronology. Other puzzles and riddles can be worked in depending on the order. A campaign might look very different based of which piece comes first. You might even have a literal puzzle or image which the pieces show. Over time the players will accumulate a substantial reference work.
Grab-Bag: On the other hand you could also hand the players a volume of material and not put any pressure on them. The material serves as a cool, in-game reference work- a briefing, an outline, a guidebook provided by sources. The players can choose to go through it or not, at their leisure. If they do, they can discover hooks, people and places than they could follow up on. If they don’t they can later turn to the material for background when they come into contact with a person, group or idea.
The Kaiin Player’s Guide takes this approach. The players’ have everything they need to know about the city, but there’s no “test.” They can flip through the guide until they spot something cool and then zoom in on that. It’s like catalog shopping. In some ways the player’s book from City of Lies does this as well. By breaking things up into small entries- with clear headings, players can jump around and look for whatever excites them. The design of the product should be comfortable, with easy and bite-size information. One benefit of this process is that it allows you as the GM to do some world building, but still leave the choices open for the players. You can expand on the details they follow up on.
I’ve tried this approach a couple of times and had pretty good success with it. When I ran my Exalted campaign, I put up a couple of short entries every other day as a countdown to the start of the campaign, covering places and people of the city the game would be set in. I ended up with a pretty substantial gazetteer. When we got to the table, the players had the flavor of the city and a solid product in the consolidated guide put together for them by their elders. I also did this for the superhero campaign I ran set in New Orleans. In the lead up to the campaign, I sent out articles that went through key NPCs in a number of different areas. I hoped this would offer players people they could contact or follow up on. The group ended up more task-focused and less interested in that sandbox approach.
THE DANGERS OF THE ELECTRONIC AGE
GMs now have access to some amazing electronic tools. DTP software can easily be found and even basic word-processing programs can be used to assemble something decent looking. That’s a great advantage, before we even get into what kinds of image and art materials GMs have access to. However, there’s a thorn in these modern tools GMs need to be wary of. Doing something electronically, while making things easier doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get used. And GMs should always be evaluating prep choices in terms of the time invested: table play payoff. For example, wikis are a great resource. We have a number of wikis for the various different campaigns. Some of them have been nicely cross index. My wife enjoys working with those and the process of building connections between entries has helped her uncover some of the mysteries of the campaign and see patterns.
But despite having some really excellent wikis, with a ton of material, they get used rarely. I can see the hits and the edits, and most players don’t look at that stuff or look at it infrequently. It is a great tool for me as the GM, an excellent archive, but it only really works because it is player created. If I were doing it, it wouldn’t be nearly as nice or complete. Wikis also mean updating and if someone gets behind then the material quickly loses relevancy as the campaign continues. I suspect most of the reason for that is players don’t take “plotting” or investigative approaches away from the game table. On the other hand, a wiki could be great for players to do look up on at the table, with tablets or the like. But that invites a host of other serious problems…
PARTICIPATION AS MATERIAL
All of that said, building this kind of material takes time and energy on the part of a GM. I’ve gotten better in recent years about building playable material. I don’t worry so much about the historical details or full encyclopedia entries for places and things. I focus on what players will contact and thinking about how that will appear to them. Obscure details of a particular battle don’t matter unless it impacts the story. Otherwise I don’t have to write it up, I just have to be able to improvise convincingly.
With my bona fides as a lazy GM established, I’ll point to the easiest way to build solid, interesting and immersive player-facing materials. Any kind of collaborative building exercise creates rich details that the players own just as much as the GM. History creation in Microscope, cluster development in Diaspora, clan creation in Blood & Honor, city building in Dresden Files- all of these create player facing materials. And each time I’ve done this, the players have created things I never would have thought of. They give me the tools to raise the armies against themselves. They get a thrill of recognition when the group they created knocks down their door to kill them. The trick is that you really aren’t giving over that much control as the GM- you still get to fill in the cracks, you still get to spin things in new directions. For example, one of the players wanted to have unicorns in the last fantasy campaign. So they threw them into the timeline with a slight mention. We knew little about them…so I made them the secret masters, the Illuminati manipulating the horrors from behind the scenes.
Oh cool, a unicorn…
explanation does not equal excuse
MUSTERING THE PCS
Many fantasy epics rely on warfare as a device: a forge for young heroes, a crusade against darkness, a looming threat. Helm’s Deep, The Sack of King’s Landing, The Battle of Beruna- the most classic and most modern fantasy stories have mass combat set pieces. So it is not surprising that many table top fantasy RPGs have systems and mechanics for handling those. In my list covering those games- By Sword, Spell and Spectre: Warfare in Fantasy RPGs - you can see a variety of approaches. Some focus on players, some take a bird’s eye view. You can see the same thing in fantasy VGRPGs- consider the difference in story and approach between the awesome Suikoden series, Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Heroes of Might and Magic (to name a few). War, used well can be an amazing tool for the GM, and I have a few more thoughts about that.
SURVEYING THE BATTLEFIELD
I think we can break down the RPG approaches to war into three broad categories. There’s some overlap between these, but generally these games have a focused approach.
Player's Scenes: Here the system focuses on figuring out the player’s places and “story” within the context of a battle. While there’s a mechanic for figuring out who won, what’s more important to the system is structuring results and scenes for individual characters. PCs often don’t control the shape of the battle, and the system may not allow for significant choices at the larger scale. Player results usually include wounds, glory and perhaps a chance to play out an event (like a duel). Bushido, Pendragon, and Legend of the Five Rings take this approach.
Battle Resolution within System: The focus is on the resolution of the battle. The scale shifts, but the basic mechanics and mechanisms remain the same. They may be a little more abstracted or distant but the scale can be shifted to play these out. Usually players have a more active role in these systems, and characters may as well. Exalted, Legends of Anglerre, and The Black Company take this approach.
New Systems for Resolution: The game either introduces an entirely new system for resolving battles or the game’s mechanics are changed so dramatically that it is difficult to see how this upper level translates down to the character level. Often these systems are intended to be played out as a game apart from the RPG itself. GURPS, Birthright, and Battlesystem take this approach.
The variables operating within these systems:
• Player Results (Are their individual results and fallout for PCs?)
• Player Control (Do players make choices for their side?)
• Level of Detail (Unit Details and Strengths, Special Abilities, Formations)
• Abstraction of Concepts (Space, Maneuver, Command, Damage, Victory)
• Resolution Time
There’s also the question of the chrome on the rules- variations on the mass combat mechanics for situations (sieges, naval warfare) and additional systems (fog of war, campaign management, recruitment, plunder, camp life, attrition, strategic goals).
When I’ve run, I’ve usually concentrated on battles over wars. I’ve had exceptions, but generally battles serve as key incidents for campaigns. Several wrapped up with mighty conflicts, pitting players and their assembled forces against an enemy. We often end up with the last third or so of the campaign focusing on bringing together people and armies. Twice that’s meant holding a city against a siege (Tanelorn and Whitewall). My favorite variation had players in charge of a mobile position, protecting it against assault. That story- The Giant’s Cradle from the original Pavis boxed campaign set- remains one of my favorite adventures. A massive Giant’s Cradle begins to float downriver to announce a potent mystical change. The players board to protect it from enemies, including some former friends. It ended up an awesome conclusion to a game, with some players opting to go with the vessel into the Hero Plane through Magasta’s Whirlpool.
I also ran the "Scorpion Clan Coup" from the Legend of the Five Rings Otosan Uchi box set. That’s a amazing resource, but nearly too large an event to do justice to. The battle and siege serve as a backdrop, rather than something the players have control of. It was colorful and exciting and finished out a portion of the story, but didn’t require the player’s involvement with the mass combat rules.
Traditionally I’ve abstracted systems for these end battles, usually creating a separate game about management and resources. I try to break down the key elements the players need to have control over: strategic objectives (how the zones break down, what the battlefield looks like, what resources appear in each area); significant allied forces (who the troops are, what qualities do they have, what unique talents do they bring, are there tensions between groups?); and NPCs (leaders and also the important heroes they’ve brought with them). Then I try to break out the PCs so they each have authority over those zones. I let them divide their forces and heroes among themselves.
And then I move in to crush their hopes and dreams. How fast I go around depends on the scale of the battle (defending the decks of aeroship which is trying to launch a doomsday weapon at the enemy, securing the different walls of a desert city). We go to the rolls and I dish out damage. If I’ve done my job right, players won’t want to kill off their allied units, and they especially won’t want to allow their NPCs to die. Over the years I’ve managed to extract a couple of noble PC deaths by putting the pressure on. And I’ve seen great dramatic scenes and costly strategic choices with serious fallout later in the game. My BSG-inspired fantasy campaign began with the players in the middle of a losing battle- forcing them to immediately make choices and changing up the number and composition of the survivor’s fleet. In most cases we use the basic resolution mechanics of the game system, but heavily hacked. I don’t think I’ve ever used one of the systems I researched in any way like the rules set out.
Where I have done “campaigns” in my games, thinking back I’m surprised at how abstractly I handled that. In a Rolemaster campaign, I had the players figuring out the best approach to retaking one PCs kingdom from the hands of invaders. I didn’t use War Law, but instead a Matrix system to handle the strategic scale decisions- which cities to aid, how to move troops, how to keep pressure on the enemy. For the big battle in that, I developed what I thought was a decent card-game style system to handle battle choices. Most of the players liked it, but one of them told me in the middle of playing it that he hated it and I had absolutely destroyed the game for him. (That ranks up there on my top ten of GM soulcrushes). Other players said they had a good time, but getting that kind of feedback while we played really stung. After that I avoided trying anything quite like that again.
That may be why I handled the Planescape Mercenary game at such a distance. I had some strategic control, but it came down to a few oppositional rolls. The PCs actions, choices and strategic input shaped how that campaign operated. I focused on skirmishes and the resource management side of things (choosing troops, choosing ops, finding supplies, uncovering strategic intelligence).
ON THE MARCH
Strangely what I’m most interested in isn’t what I’ve actually maned to bring to the table. Ideally wars and conflicts should be a serious and long term matter. It isn’t a single battle, but a series of conflicts with objectives and strategic shifts. Battles occur at a variety of scales and maneuvering happens on many fields- political, social, economic. In this case, I’m not even necessarily thinking of the players as involved with that war. Instead war is the backdrop changing the landscape. Armies are on the march, deserters form bandit groups, looters follow up on the battlefields, supplies get requisitioned, spies and infiltrators move and get hunted, villages get burnt- players groups carrying out unrelated missions find themselves caught in the midst of these stories. Perhaps they get caught in the midst of a siege, an awful situation based on everything I’ve read about them. Perhaps they head to a dungeon or castle to engage in some classic adventuring and find it occupied by an army (ala The Keep aka the strangest module I’ve ever read…).
I’ve adapted from published adventures- putting players in the path of oncoming armies and even having them press-ganged into one side or the other. A number of modules and adventures use these elements (Dwarf Wars for WHFRP, Barsaive at War for Earthdawn, Test of the Warlords & Master of the Desert Nomads for D&D). In some the threat of war, especially civil war looms in the background (the motivation behind Empire in Flames for example). In some the war’s about to begin with the players engaged in finding a way to avert it or to find a means of resolution. These can represent game/campaign changers- allowing the GM a means to change power structures, authority and control in their setting.
THE SMOKE CLEARS
This gets me thinking about the aftermath of these kinds of wars, even battles. What happens to the losing side. Most victories involve the disruption of control and the shattering of morale. When do those forces go to? What happens on the battlefield afterwards? How does the victorious force capitalize on that win? Do the players have to make hard choices about that? Can then push their troops or do they themselves have to be pushed in pursuit, reconstruction or other activities?
On a larger scale, how do the armies, nations and forces react to the changing situation? Let’s assume that one side wins a decisive victory- can we use that as fodder for future adventures? Players could be involved in spreading the word, finishing off pockets of resistance, or figuring out what the new status quo will be. Ideally this wouldn’t diminish the group’s success, but instead deepen it by allowing them more input and a chance to see their victories close up. On the other hand it could also point out the cost of victory. Perhaps allies now turn with the key threat destroyed- Sauron’s defeated and Rohan takes advantage to bringing Gondor under its control. Or perhaps other threats waiting in the wings now appear- not on the same level, but seeds for future stories.
Alternately, the players lose. In which case they have to figure out how to escape the battle. Can they manage to keep the fleeing forces from being devastated? Can they reorder them to a rally point and perhaps mount another approach? Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow shows the kinds of devastation that can happen, a domino effect from bad planning. If the players’ side loses, what comes next? It doesn’t immediately switch over to a Midnight-style world (though that would be an interesting time lapse). Can they raise another army or will they have to fight the invaders guerilla-style? That suggests an entirely new campaign form.
CHANGING UP THE GAME
Finally, one of the most interesting ideas to me is how magic and other fantastic elements change warfare. Obviously we have wizards lobbing fire balls, giants smashing down gates and lone heroes who can cut down more people than an entire unit.(In fact the ability of a single person/hero to do so much may be the biggest change from the real world). We can imagine the potent battlefield effects of Dwarven sappers and Elvish snipers. But how do these elements affect everything else about war?
How does a diversity of races, potentially including monsters affect the organization of an army? What kinds of means need to be kept in place to make sure fighting doesn’t break out (especially if you have racial animosities)? How do you secure large monsters so they don’t eat “their friends”? Even more importantly, how do you feed those things? It requires massive fodder and extra materials required to support simple cavalry troops.
Logistics is probably where the fantastic elements, especially magic can have the most impact. It turns, in part, on what the limiting factors are for such things: mana, skill, spells per day. But if healing magic’s present it offers a potential to reduce casualties, help fight off camp illnesses and generally keep morale up. But if more people survive, do they survive with more grievous and debilitating wounds? We’ve seen that happen in recent conflicts. Can magic assist with movement, marching and strategic intelligence? Most significantly can it affect command and control on the battlefield- speeding orders, reducing fog of war, and allowing units to respond more quickly?
I’m really curious about how other GMs have used wars and battle in their campaigns. Have you used particular resolution systems, war-gamed it, played with minis? Have events like these served as backdrops for your campaigns? Are there aspects you’ve found more fruitful in presenting them?
explanation does not equal excuse
FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS: MORE CAMPAIGNS THAN I CAN RUN
I’ve done a couple of posts on my upcoming hack of Scion to the FATE system. We’ll be trying that out in a few weeks- my goal is a six session mini-campaign, something more akin to a long movie or a mini-series. I figured out the skill list and I’ve managed to break down the other tasks I need to complete before the campaign starts. I used to be a rules crunch gamer- thinking about modifications for Rolemaster and Champions, and working out systems for Storyteller and M&M. I kept trying to figure out emulation engines and details. Once I detached from that- primarily because those things I built got in the way of table play - I stopped tooling around with those kinds of rule exercises. Instead I’ve shifted some of that energy over to setting and system hacks, trying to extricate elements I like from those places and making them easier to use and engage.
Of late I’ve been playing with FATE for a couple of reasons. I can bend it easily and my play group likes the elements I’ve introduced from it. I know some gamers don’t care for the narrative declaration and player control (making it less useful for horror or tension games). However I think changes can be made to it to reduce those elements pretty easily. I’ve also been working with FATE because the mechanical principles are pretty easy to port over to our house system, Action Cards. That means that any work I do might be useful for other people and easily applied to our games. So here are two separate adaptations I've been thinking about.
Adventure! From WW was the last pulp game I ran- I think a two or three session mini-story. That was decently fun and the game has good ideas in it. I especially like the power allowing characters to return from the dead next session- so long as no one actually saw the body (fell off a cliff, tumbled into a volcano, etc.). I’ve thought about doing a more pulp-oriented Trail of Cthulhu in the future. But for some reason, the Crimson Skies setting keeps popping up for me. I never played the board or clix game (though I have pieces from the latter). I did play the PC game (until a never fixed bug rendered it unplayable…FU Microsoft) and the awesomeXbox game. I like the setting- and think it would be fun to play in that for a mini-series or side story.
On one level, Crimson Skies would be a pretty easy adaptation. Spirit of the Century already covers pulp action, so I could use that with just a few tweaks. The WizKids CS rules had a pretty good setting summary in them, IIRC. If I can track down my copy of that I would be in business. Having a condensed setting overview would save me time in selling it to the players. The more complicated side of things comes from the planes and air combat.
Obviously each player would have their own plane- that would be a requirement. To simulate vehicles, I can see two approaches. First, keep it pretty simple. Planes just offer a few modifiers, but the players run their characters as is but the environment shifts to in the air. Second, bring the planes more to the foreground. Planes have their own aspects, skills, stress tracks and even stunts. I lean towards the latter, even though I’m no fan of vehicle building systems. Strands of FATE spends a great deal of time on those issues. While it has some neat ideas, I want to keep it relatively easy to use. What I want isn’t universal vehicle building, but rather a system for the players to create, kit out, and advance their planes. Players would still fall back to their characters’ skills (and potentially aspects) to supplement that. I’d probably take the same approach with a Mecha style game.
I’m thinking I’d come up with a set of airborne “maneuvers,”- that offer specific aspects, effects or the like- but still pretty open ended. Planes might have stunts giving them bonuses to specific maneuvers. I can see a couple of ways to handle how the plane to plane combat actually works. If I want it to be really abstract in a fight, planes would only track their distance to enemy planes (Close, Medium, Far, or Out of Range). Each player would exist in their own effective space. My distance to plane X would have no bearing on your distance to plane X (or any other plane). That might simulate the chaos and speed of these kinds of combats. I could track distances with something like a matrix and pegs.
That approach does eliminate some of the visual possibilities. I have some of the plastic CS planes, so it seems a shame to not use them. It would be better to have a system where relative distances matter. In that case, I could make up a “sky zone” map sheet. It would be something like a dart board. In the center you have a circle, then a ring outside that divided into four quadrants, then another ring divided into four. Each quadrant (and the center) would be a zone. You could measure ranges that way- and determine who could assist whom in battle. A fight could have zone tags, like Mountains, AA Fire or Buildings (and perhaps move). Or players could add them to the fight as it went on. You’d also need a mechanic for chases, escapes and disengagement.
LEGEND OF THE FIVE RINGS
Some time ago I started doing some thinking about how to handle an adaptation of L5R using HeroQuest 2e. In the end I spent some time on it, but never went further. HQ2 would have been a significantly departure from what we’d been playing and several mechanical details made it not the best fit. So I set that aside, but still wanted to do something with L5R. Previously I’d hacked the material onto Rolemaster (yes, seriously) and Storyteller both with some success (or at least I got some good sessions out of them). FATE offers some interesting possibilities, and like HQ2 provides excellent instruments for handling non-physical combat.
So what will require the most work for this hack?
The skill list in L5R is pretty extensive. L5R 3e consolidates the list down significantly, but it still comes in at 42 skills. My Scion/FATE hack ended up with 28 skills and that’s the upper end of what I’m comfortable with. To reduce the number, some skills will fall under others- as a kind of minor stunt. For example, Tea Ceremony +2 or +3 might be a stunt affiliated with Etiquette instead of on its own. Know the School ought to be associated with combat skills rather than on its own. Traps could be a specialization stunt under Engineering (or as a bonus for attempts without the Eng. Skill). L5R 3e has “emphases” under skills and this mechanic would echo that.
These should be pretty easy to emulate, although some of the combat heavy effects might have to get rewritten since they often do the same kind of thing at higher levels. Each rank within a clan school would be a stunt.
Clan & Families
These can easily be simulated by initial skills or even better by particular aspects.
Some of these can be handled as aspects. Some can be done as stunts. Disadvantages are more tricky- mechanical effect disads can be pretty serious. It’s also hard to qualify any aspects as entirely negative, but perhaps I could put together a list of options- players could take an additional flaw aspect (or two) to offset their refresh pool and get more stunts.
I have to think about this. I like the L5R mechanic of focusing vs. strikes. I also think any duel ought to have at least three stages: sizing up (perception), psyching out (mental), and the actual contest. Perhaps there could be a running total among the stages, acting as a modifier to the final result? Should Fate points be used in the final strike- part of me thinks that it shouldn’t.
This might actually be easier to handle than in HQ2, which handles these powers abstractly. Shugenja of a particular clan would have an elemental affinity- likely a straight bonus with those kinds of spells, and an elemental weakness- penalty with that element. Most of the shugenja skills have associated strengths (Crafting magic for the Asahina, Ward Lore for Yogo) which would be represented by an aspect. Spells would be minor stunts (like the skill emphasis I mentioned above). Every two take would reduce the character’s refresh pool by one. Spells would be written pretty broadly, ala Dresden or Exalted. L5R itself comes close to that but ended up with more spells than they needed. Shugenja would be able to modify the effects of a spell with spin, margins or increased difficulty. I like returning the focus to the magic users having just a few spells that they have to manipulate for effects. Dresden Files has some ideas, but I'm not completely comfortable with their model.
Honor and Glory
I’d have to ditch some factors of the L5R experience, probably beginning with Insight rank. Honor would be measured as a kind of social stress- which could be raised or depleted based on actions, events or conflicts. Part of a players honor could be measured in abstractions like positions, offices, supporters, and the like. A player could take damage on those tracks- serving as a kind of plot stress. When too much damage is taken, it calls that thing into crisis, at which point the player has to deal with it or let it fall away. That’s borrowing from the plot stress concept of Legends of Anglerre.
Glory, on the other hand, would actually be a skill. It could be subsided in for other interaction and manipulation skills in conflicts or otherwise. Each + of the Glory skill would have stress associated with it. If a player gains glory, they add boxes to their Glory stress until it reaches a certain level. At that point the skill goes up by one and they reset the boxes. Likewise taking glory damage, for failures and the like, knocks out glory stress boxes and potentially reduces the Glory skill bonus.
explanation does not equal excuse
Now that I've finally finished my review of the Gazetteer series, I have a few final thoughts. My geeklist of those reviews: Gazetteers of Mystara: D&D's Lost Setting
1. TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY GAMING
I’ve said it before, but the volume of rich material in these books means that WotC really ought to be offering some kind of reprint or electronic version. I understand some of the logic for avoiding that: piracy, driving players towards new editions, production costs. Of these only the last seems to hold any merit. But illegal electronic versions exist already and I would love to be able to purchase clean, well-done and legal editions. The OSR movement has peeled off players- better to gain some market share within that rather than ignoring it. I doubt the existence of these materials with significantly impact sales of a present edition.
During the brief time WotC did sell electronic versions, I picked several up. Some of them had been scanned well- pages aligned, clean up done, contrast balanced. However many sucked. They were nearly useless because whoever’d done the scanning job had been asleep at the switch. Producing good quality materials will obviously take some time, effort, and therefor expense. I’m not saying I want Original Electronic Version quality, just something relatively clean. If WotC's serious about drawing back fans across all of the editions, then reprinting- electronic or otherwise- ought to be an arrow in their quiver.
I’m saying this because I really want a PoD copy of The Rules Cyclopedia.
2. OPEN GAMING
In going back to reread these gazetteers, I once again had to reconfigure my vision of the Known World and Mystara. I’d forgotten the scale of Ylaruam or that Thyatis had a mainland presence, the westernmost segment of the Empire. I’d forgotten how important Minrothad was- I’d recalled it as a kind of throwaway place but it has a significantly larger impact. I’d even forgotten that Alfheim was completely surrounded by another country. I’d never seen a solid “overview” of the world, so I had to put the pieces together myself. What’s interesting for me- especially given the way I picked up and put together a vision of Mystara exclusively from the gazetteers over the year- are the relatively rare invalidations.
In Rebecca Borgstrom in her essay “Structure and Meaning in Role-Playing Game Design”
(Second Person, MIT Press 2007) talks about the way rpg supplements can actually close down a world. Gamers begin with base material, usually a core or setting book which lays out the essential elements. Places or concepts might get a fly-over pass in that product. GM’s can start running from just that material- filling things in as they go along. When later products appear, coloring those previously blank areas they contradict material the GM’s established. That’s usually a given, but some products may present themselves in such depth, with such a distinct reading that they don’t recast the GM’s read but act as a completely exclusive read on the material. This makes it more difficult for the GM to usefully adapt that material. It becomes worse if the architecture of further supplements depends on that. Borgstorm points out how some of the first edition Exalted materials do this. The Mystara Gazetteers, for the most part, never felt like they offered a closed interpretation.
3. SOME GAMERS JUST WANT TO SEE THE WORLD BURN
Outside the gazetteers, Mystara does have an invalidation problem. In 1992, TSR began to introduce metaplot elements to the setting. Previous to this, events appearing in modules and supplements didn’t really impact the setting material. Most of the gazetteers mentioned the modules affiliated with their areas. The only mention of a module event potentially affecting a setting came for Elves of Alfheim where success or failure of an outside adventure could impact Elven life. Now TSR “blew up” the setting with the adventure presented in Wrath of the Immortals. That moved the timeline forward and drastically changed several areas including Glantri. A series of Poor Wizard Almanacs then continued to push the history forward. The later AD&D revisions of Karameikos and Glantri assumed those events as canon, as did Champions of Mystara. GMs who didn’t move their campaigns forward ended up with supplements with useless material or material requiring more work to whip into shape. Plus, as I did, they might cringe at some of the choices.
White Wolf’s legendary for problems with metaplot in their games. Paranoia alienated some gamers with their Post-Whoops line of products. Legend of the Five Rings most parallels Mystara’s problems. I enjoyed the first edition of L5R and I bought every supplement for it. However at a certain point, they needed to advance the game setting to parallel the story happening in the CCG it was based on. It happened slowly at first, but then accelerated. Incidents and ideas began to appear in supplements based on those world changes. By the midpoint of the L5R 2e life cycle, we’d jumped forward significantly. The Secrets of... clan books were essentially incompatible with the Way of... books for setting and characters. Of course both offered different mechanical options. It became a mess. Third Edition L5R tried to clean up the mechanical contradictions and establish a new baseline, but the history kept rolling forward, rendering interesting past material more difficult to use. The newest edition has embraced a broader approach- playable across different eras.
The problem here- as in Mystara is that I liked the world and status quo established by the original materials- I like pre-Clan War Rokugan. And I like the world of the gazetteers. I don’t want another person’s vision of what should happen; I want more ideas to play with inside that setting.
4. PICKING THE BEST
What are my top five gazetteers? GAZ3: The Principalities of Glantri remains #1- I’ve gotten more interesting ideas from that than any other volume. GAZ12: The Golden Khan of Ethengar is #2. I’ve used some of those ideas, and it is so well-written, an example of how to actually put together one of these. GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos is #3. It has great characters and a smaller scale. I’ve only used a little bit of it in the game, but I appreciate the atmosphere and the adaptation. GAZ2: The Emirates of Ylaruam is #4 which seems a little weird to me. In my review I wrote about some of my reservations with it, but there’s a ton of great detail in it. I’d really like to do some sessions with more of this civilization. It is almost a tie with #5, but I think GAZ5: The Elves of Alfheim just edges out GAZ6: The Dwarves of Rockhome- primarily because I’ve lifted more from the former. Next on my list would be GAZ13: The Shadow Elves, GAZ9: The Minrothad Guilds or GAZ7: The Northern Reaches.
5. AT THE BOTTOM
While each has some interesting ideas I think the three weakest volumes are GAZ11: The Republic of Darokin, GAZ14: The Atruaghin Clans and GAZ4: The Kingdom of Ierendi. Ierendi gets last place because it feels like it so missed the boat about what makes the gazetteers great. AtruAghin Clans' weakness lies in the rush job done to produce it. Darokin just bugs me and I’m sure won’t be on others lists of the weakest.
6. NARRATION & STYLE
One of the criticism I’ve seen leveled at the gazetteers is the “narrative” fiction. Generally I’m not a fan of game fiction within supplements. Some game books substitute that for providing setting or clear material. Where the gazetteers use first person voice, it has a purpose. It can an insider perspective or an unreliable narrator. Sometimes it is used to convey tone or cultural style. A few of the books overuse the technique (Ierendi for example). But where it does appear it works more often than not.
7. OUTSIDER PERSPECTIVES
I’m in a strange position reviewing these gazetteers. I never used any of them for their mechanics: I never ran basic D&D and by the times these came out, I’d already moved away from AD&D. Instead I use these materials for Rolemaster, GURPS and homebrew campaigns. I also never ran a “Mystara” campaign. Instead I tore some of these places out and dropped them in to fill out areas of the game world. That’s required quite a bit of tweaking over the 25+ years I’ve run that world. Rereading these threw me a little- having mixed up what I’d adapted and what I’d developed myself. Mystara veterans probably wouldn’t recognize much of it. Still it isn’t the worst- Gloranthan experts would probably do a spit take with my bastardization of that material, patched together as I started to figure out how that cosmology actually worked.
8. MANY WORLDS THEORY
I know this can be said for most established settings, like Forgotten Realms or Cyberpunk’s Night City- but I love the idea that there are multiple different Mystara’s out there. Worlds where the Hollow World is a vital and important part of the setting, worlds where it doesn’t even exist. Campaigns where the players battle against the rampaging awfulness of the Thayatian Dominion and others where they battle magical conspiracies wrought by the Alphatians. Games that perhaps play in only one or two of the regions- the Karameikan or Ethengarian campaign. That an NPC my players have come to love my be completely off-stage in another world…or might actually be a hated enemy.
9. FOR THE FUN OF IT
IMHO Forgotten Realms and some of other recent settings aspire to be Tolkien-esque: historical, detailed, logically consistent, rich and deadly serious. The Gazetteers and Mystara as a whole take another approach. They’re closer in tone to earlier D&D material. I don’t believe that renders the material any less compelling or dramatic. But in some places it does go perhaps a little too far for my taste. As I mentioned in my GAZ10: The Orcs of Thar review, I think humor emerges at the game table and it is harder to actually craft into the material without risking a groaning reaction. But I do believe that lighter tone makes the setting feel more accessible, more friendly. As bizarre as it might sound, given some of the horrors in the setting, I feel like Mystara’s a good and happy place. I feel like my characters would be welcome there- and could make a difference.
10. EMERGENT WORLDS
One of the most interesting things in the current campaign has been watching the players evolving sense of Glantri (which goes by another name in my world). I really love it when a player embraces their background and becomes a kind of ambassador for their people. Lucy d’Ambreville has served to illustrate some of the contradictions of Glantri- and the complexity of their perspective on gods and divine magic. As a GM, embrace what the players come up with about their culture- let them build that from the material. Sherri, Lucy’s player, read through the Glantri material what’s come out is her reading of it. That’s provided great opportunities for world-building with minimal input on my part. It illustrates how useful a “Yes/Yes, but…” approach can be even for these kinds of larger scale details.
My next set of reviews will cover another series I love- one which has major utility today twenty years after the first volume was published. After that I eventually plan to return and review some of the more interesting later Mystara products including Red Steel, Savage Baronies, Champions of Mystara and Hollow World.
explanation does not equal excuse
LIVING ON THE CORNER OF COLLATERAL AND DAMAGE
In my discussion of superhero cities, I left out a few interesting locations without individual sourcebooks. You can see my awesome list here- Superhero Cities. I went back find some I'd missed. Kerberos Club for example, has an amazing section on London in the setting. It nicely conveys tone and offers playable possibilities. It shows a Victorian-era London dramatically impacted by the relatively recent emergence of supers, magick and other high weirdness. I could easily see running a London-centered campaign based on this. Mutant City Blues, on the other hand, offers some historical background on the setting, and then sixteen pages of material for the urban locale of your choice. I like that- the corporations, people and places suggested there offer a concrete connection to the premise of the game. They reinforce the ideas and allow players and GMs access to those stories. But they’re also written broadly enough to fit into whichever city you opt to use. Finally, I was a little surprised when I went back to look at the Smallville rpg. I’d assumed that they would have significant material on Smallville or Metropolis, but the sketchy material only takes up a couple of pages. I wonder if the Smallville High School Yearbook has more stuff.
I pulled together that list of superhero cities because they represent my love/hate relationship with some gaming materials. I really like city sourcebooks. I enjoy reading them, particularly fantasy ones. Yet I found myself floundering through some of those supers city books. I tried to imagine how I might actually use some the material there- and how I’d used some of that in the past. Only some of the books had actually offered me inspiration and ideas for campaigns. That got me thinking broadly about settings and how they’re actually used by GMs- what makes them resonate, what makes them useful and how many GMs are actually running these things?
The super-city books which lost me—Bay City, Millennium City, Vibora Bay, Freedom City, Century Station—share a common feature. To put it bluntly, that’s actually a lack of feature. Each has a few minor details to differentiate them, but those don't offer a compelling premise or story. Some have disasters they’ve built on, but that’s more an excuse to clear away the old material than it is to set up a premise to be considered. Marvel’s Civil War stems from an event like that, creating a major shift in public opinion. A ran a supers campaign set in a city rebuilding from a metahuman clash. That served as the spine and controlling idea of the campaign: a distrust of heroes, blaming them at least in part for what happened, and a group goal of rebuilding faith among people in heroes who could make a difference. But the lack of theme in these books meant I ended up with no real interest in the setting. As a result all of the history, backgrounds, neighborhoods and like material isn’t worth exploring or reworking. It isn’t interesting or connected to a compelling idea. In the end only statted-out villains and NPCs from those books offer any useful material.
To be fair, some of these have another premise: that the city has a rich, dense and vast superhero history and population. But I’d say that isn’t all that compelling an idea for a supers city. It works in a comic like Astro City because that is the main focus: about the implications of having that many supers co-existing in a single place. We see the literal and figurative fallout from that history and those characters. I think that works less well at the game table for the simple reason that it steals the thunder from the PCs. As I’ve said before players have to feel they have room to become the big heroes in a campaign setting. Cities like these create obstacles and a constant reminder that others are out there doing the same thing, perhaps better. It isn’t that a city should be empty of other heroes, but in my experience they work better with low-key NPC heroes, occupied with particular crimes, or simply using the city as a base. Having too many supers in one city may also strain reasonability.
PROMISE OF THE PREMISE
Having said that, the obvious counter-example is Marvel’s New York City- the primary location for most of the Marvel Superhero RPGs across the ages. Marvel’s NYC works because it is Marvel. Placing it in that continuity offers a hook to the players that simply having a large number of supers in a city cannot. The same holds true for any of the DC Universe city settings. Most likely than not, players have some expectations and ideas about it that they can play to.
On the other hand, some of the books I mentioned earlier- Mutant City Blues, Kerberos Club- have solid and easily pitched setting concepts. Consider the city setting books on offer for Underground. Los Angeles is the default, but it is built as the basis for its “Decommissioned Supers in a Near Future Dystopia” setting. So the city presented there exemplifies that, and if I ran that game I’d probably work from that. But the other two cities sourcebooks offered also have catchy and distinct controlling ideas: Washington DC is the tightly controlled center of political control, corruption, and conspiracy and Luna is a former space penal colony turned tourist center. I could tell that to the players and generate a certain amount of excitement- as well as a sense of what kinds of campaigns might work there.
Of course the advantage all of these have is a general superhero setting with a distinct premise. I imagine a city sourcebook for games/settings like Red Star, This Favored Land, Grim War, or Progenitor would equally have a distinct controlling idea. That would ease GMs integration and use of that material within those specific campaigns. But of course, that equally makes it more difficult for GMs to use that elsewhere. That’s the great trade off. City sourcebooks for open superhero games often err by presenting a setting which any GM could drop into their game easily. As a result, you end up with a place without character. Often characterized by a kitchen sink approach, by putting in everything they end up with nothing.
Well, not nothing- I’m sounding particularly absolute there. Consider San Angelo, a popular sourcebook, which offers a city without an obvious controlling premise, but is well written enough that people really like it. But I think without some kind of strong and cool concept to shape the material, a city sourcebook might have a few interesting ideas but not feel coherent or compelling.
I suspect most superhero campaigns fit into one of two categories- urban or free range. Urban campaigns center on the city as the main source of adventures, stories and character interactions. The players may occasionally head out of the city to another location, but most of the game will be there. Free range campaigns have the adventures and stories taking place in many different places. These campaigns hand-wave away travel times (super-sonic aircraft, teleporters). Characters may have a base or a city where they “live” but the adventures primarily take place away from there. The base may also be “hidden” and apart from the world, like the JLA Satellite/Moonbase or the Authority’s Bleedship. In this case, characters may have lives in different cities or live at the base.
MY CAMPAIGN CITIES
Pittsburgh: This was the default city for a “Free Range” campaign where the players formed an FBI supers taskforce. I did some research on Pittsburgh, and I’d originally intended there to be a rust-belt theme, but I ended up with a more X-Files style campaign that took the players across the country.
Arkham Harbor: Obviously, beginning with the name, I wanted a kind of strange-sounding supernatural superhero campaign. I was trying to echo some of the themes from The Nocturnals, but with an East Coast bent. I developed NPCs and neighborhoods to echo that. They had a mysterious council of town Elders no one saw, Miskatonic University, and a superhero team who had previously protected the city but who had mysteriously vanished five years beforehand. Most of the crimes, even those more ‘science-y’ appearing, had a root supernatural or conspiratorial cause. (Haunted Small City)
New Orleans: Used for the “rebuilding” campaign I mentioned above. A number of the players asked for it in particular. I’d never been particularly interested in NOLA before, but I did research and tried to bring out some of the character of the city. Obviously I was able to blend some of the real-world ideas about reconstruction and response to the authorities with events in the game. I wish I’d done more with that, but I was pretty pleased with the arc as a whole. (City Recovering from Super Disaster)
Hub City: In the DC Universe, the new Question series in the late 1980’s presented Hub City as a place filled with corruption, apathy, and criminal institutions. When we decided to run a heavily Watchmen-inspired campaign (Saviors), we went with this location. To make it even easier we essentially renamed Chicago Hub City, so that we had locations and maps to work with. The goal was to create something of the gritty city suggested by Dark Champions, but with a minimum of the fantastic. Crimes would be about bad guys and corruption. That was the intent, but we ended up with a campaign with a broader more superhero vibe. Still the city itself stood out as a character and the players reacted to it as I’d hoped they would. (Metropolis Built on Corruption)
Chicago: In my most recent campaign, Chicago had been for many years a no-go location for superheroes. Supervillains had quietly controlled it from behind the scenes. That remained an open secret among supers- and any heroes who had gone there had met a grisly end. The campaign began with an event that rocked the metahuman world- killing heroes and villains alike. The group, a new superteam, headed to Chicago to take advantage of the situation and bring order to the streets. (Power Vacuum Left from Supervillain Control)
I also think my feelings about generic/specific city concepts apply as well to settings across games and genres. A setting premise needs to be cool, clear and actually executed in the material. If I don’t get it pretty quickly, I’m going to move on. If you asked me about D&D settings which sound interesting to me, I’m always going to point to Planescape, Al-Qadim, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, and even Birthright over Eberron, Greyhawk, and Blackmoor. Forgotten Realms is a special case, a place which has established its continuity such that it is the Marvel Universe of FRP settings. But those others don’t grab me- they might have some flash and detail, but they feel undefined to me. Eberron is a case where every time I think I “get” what the setting is, I go and look at the material and it feels like a mish-mash. I’d say the same thing with Earthdawn and Fading Suns- two campaigns where I want to like the idea, and I think I have a sense of the unique premise, but then when I look at the books I don’t see what I imagined actually presented.
OK- so what do I want to see for a superhero sourcebook? Here’s where I’m going to seem like I’m reversing myself. I’d really like to see some generic superhero citybooks- not presenting a city as a whole, not building a history, but instead providing ideas, places and people which the GM could use for the game. I have a couple of models for this- primarily the awesome Villainy Amok sourcebook for Champions. That’s a toolkit for campaigns, and it would be great to see a flexible toolkit like that focused purely on urban games (ideas for patrols, domestic life, etc). Another model might be the awesome Flying Buffalo Citybook series for fantasy games. I wonder if that structure- a set of businesses, locations, events or people- could be done for supers campaigns? Each entry would be presented generically, with a couple of plot hooks and stories. Or, even more ambitiously, perhaps a superhero city could be built using The Kaiin Players Guide model. That sourcebook gives the players an overview of the city and lets them pick the rumors and incidents they’re interested in- which the GM can then riff from.
So if you've played in or run a superhero rpg, have you played in a campaign which used one of these published cities? If you ran using one, how much did the sourcebook help?
explanation does not equal excuse
BUT WHAT ARE WE DOING?
I talked a little last week about the idea of sandboxes and finales. In reading through some of the excellent comments to the post, I began to wonder about the terms I was using and the values associated with them. For example, I think different people may have a different sense of what’s meant by a sandbox game. Some might see it as completely without form to start- with the players supplying drive and direction and the GM responding entirely to that. On the other hand, a sandbox game might be defined as open choice in a setting- where the players have the freedom to explore the setting outside of a central plot or story.
An interesting parallel experience comes from one of the designers for the PS3 game, Flower, essentially an exploration game. Jenova Chen in an interview on Gamasutra says,
“The game was designed to be an open world at the beginning. Then, people said, "What am I supposed to do after the first 20 minutes of straight awesomeness of enjoying the nature?" And then they all end up saying, "Oh, there's no purpose. I don't know where to go.”… So, we kind of have to figure out a solution there. And we iterated it to more like a semi-open world and semi-linear structure….You have to kind of trigger these flowers in sort of an order, and then we see players just wander off into the distance to the very end of the level, and there's nothing there. They were just all confused. So we actually had to kind of block them before they could move on to the next area. It's almost like we wanted to throw away the traditional game design, but we end up picking up all the pieces we threw away and putting them back because we know those are actually needed to deliver a good guided experience.”
I’d consider most of my games open- I try to supply a setting and incidents for the players to respond to. I set up situations, but how the players decide to deal with those ought to remain open. No suggestion should be discounted outside of the game or setting logic. Keith Baker talks about elements of sandbox games here. The blog Reality Refracted breaks down some of the types of campaigns, and I’d say I fall somewhere usually between Plot and Campaign. I really want my players to have Agency, and I think the Rhetorical Gamer really lays out the concerns of agency in two great posts: here and here. One problem in doing any assessment or analysis of these kinds of gaming techniques is that I can’t really be objective: my sources are anecdotal- based on my experiences running and playing. Given that gamers likely play with the same groups most often, certain patterns or beliefs may arise in there. My group wants to discover the story the GM has planned out, and wants to help get that to the table. But they don’t want to play a module. My gaming groups generally hold to those values, though individuals may have different interpretations.
Related to that, one of the splits I see is that between Improvisation and Railroading. There’s some suggestion that improv-approach games reduce the problems of rails or offer a better power balance between players & GM. I’ll admit to being a pretty freeform GM- I write up notes and sketch ideas, but I’m also pretty loose about how important that ends up being at the table. I rarely stat encounters or enemies, unless I really want a big scene or I’m pretty sure the players have it in mind to take on the opposition in question. I’m a fan of Play Unsafe and his mentor Impro, but I’m less comfortable with fully improvised sessions. Beedo, at Dreams in the Lich House, considers the levels of improvisation players might be comfortable with, in the context of the excellent Armitage Files. Some people have suggested that in practice we end up with a continuum of practices running from Railroad (Control) to Improvisation (Freedom).
What do I think the far poles are? On the Railroading side, I think it takes two forms: active and passive. Active Railroading has the GM making declarations about what the players can and cannot do. Doors cannot be opened, obstacles cannot be passed, monsters may not be defeated- regardless of rules, character abilities and rolls. The Rhetorical Gamer’s story about the GM berating the group for taking actions undercut the GM’s set-up is a classic example. My favorite incident occurred in an Exalted game, when the GM declared to a player, “The giant tree reaches out and grabs you.” The player naturally said she wanted to dodge. The GM repeated that she’d been grabbed. The player pointed out the various skills and charms she had available to avoid that. Angrily, the GM told her to roll- at which point she obtained 10 successes, an EPIC and ABSURD number. “OK, he grabs you and knocks you out,” replied the GM. At which point I think the rest of the table burst out laughing at him.
Passive Railroading, on the other hand, is more common. It can take many forms. A GM might excise all other possible options, not bothering with any attention or details aside from the plot and story they want to play. Any questions or exploration loop back to that. More sinisterly, the GM may simply ignore player inputs and “voting” in favor of the story they have in mind. They don’t actively negate, but ignore results or shift them in a way antithetical to the intent. We were playing in a game where we weren’t quite sure of the direction or plot- but we’d at least identified some of the bad guys. We ended up meeting a lieutenant of the BBEG, a follower out of family loyalty and nationalism. The group decided that interacting with and convincing this person of the plots afoot would be the best approach. So we spent a good part of the session interacting with the NPC, establishing ties, building up connections. One of the PCs moved to open a potential romantic interest with the NPC. We liked the character and could see how this would move us towards our goals and provide new opportunities. At the end of the session, the GM essentially walked the NPC off-stage, never to return. Our attempts to contact and follow up with the NPC were stymied. Instead, many sessions later at the climax, the character showed up- in the service of the bad guy but now “mind controlled” to explain his siding with them.
QUESTIONS TO SOLVE
Of course one of the problems with defining a rails vs. improv continuum is that these positions can shift depending on what’s happening at the table. A GM might be improvising a scene, but still be driving players in one direction. Or a GM who has their plot worked out down to the beats might freeform a fight.
I have some questions and they arise from interesting discussions like that of Casting Shadows here and the negativity towards some kinds of story presented by Monsters and Manuals here.
At what point does GM input become railroading? At what point is a GM imposing story? Is it in limiting choices? In placing obstacles? In forcing conflicts? In setting up dilemmas and tough choices? In setting up incidents? And do different players see the “imposition” of these details differently?
On the flip side, as suggested in the opening quote- shouldn’t a GM be obligated to provide some structure to the players? How much is too much? What elements of drama and story-telling right fit in-- rising action, act structure, reversals, inner vs. outer conflict, repetition for emphasis, controlling ideas, symbols-- and which deliver “railroaded narrative”?
WHAT I'M ACTUALLY DOING AT THE TABLE
I’m thinking about these questions because I want to try to find the right balance between control and freedom. I see a value in a heavily improvised approach- with the idea of an emergent story. But I also see value in active story-crafting by the GM. I have stories and ideas I think the players might enjoy playing around with. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be a GM. But those stories aren’t complete. Instead they’re fragments that can get filled in at the table or ignored if the players choose another, better path. But I think story isn’t a dirty word. What bothers me about the “Hickman” model mentioned above is that in its extreme forms of play you end up with one of two static approaches. On the one hand, you get a story where your characters don’t matter- any could be slotted in. The PC natures and backgrounds don’t impact it. On the other, you have stories where the players don’t matter. The characters have been created and fulfill roles, but the actual choices made by them have little or no impact on events (i.e. Dragonlance).
I’ve also played in games without signposts. Some of them have been interesting in the level of freedom allowed the players. But more often, the group’s been lost. Perhaps traditional narrative has served as a crutch for us too long, so that when we find that space we can’t cope. But sometimes it has felt like the GM’s given up or wants to show off a mastery of the form. As in the Flower example, we walked to the end of the level, but still remained confused.
Which means either extreme fails for our group. I believe a great game requires a blending of control and freedom. Despite the dangers, I believe that story offers benefits in play. Story-telling techniques- requiring GM control- offer benefits at the table. But those benefits only arise when tempered with free and meaningful choices for the players. What I really want to figure out, what I try to figure out in every game I run, is how to do that.
ON MASS EFFECT 3
Incidentally, since I mentioned it in my last post, this weekend I got to hear an angry rant by one of our group who loves Mass Effect, but hated the ending. We talked about it for some time and his major complaint was SPOILERS that all of the endings were the same. With the curtain pulled back, he hated the sense of powerlessness that created for him (the player) vs. him (the character). The Hopeless Gamer has an ending idea, though I'm not sure it would exactly solve that problem, but it is worth reading if you're interested in the game
explanation does not equal excuse
Note that towards the end I have a couple of VG spoilers regarding the most recent FFs. I'll warn again before you get there.
IS A GM LIKE A CAT TO A SANDBOX GAME?
If I could describe an ideal GMing approach, what I aspire to, I’d probably call it a structured sandbox. A game where I set up situations, draw out roads and decorate the terrain, but then allow the players to move as they wish around that world. I make those roads attractive- with interesting scenery and waypoints. But the players can and should be able to head off into the treeline. If they do so, I can start cutting trails there, building camps for them to make that travel more interesting. And if they stay on that trail then I’ll try to open it up and figure out where that trail might lead. Or I might also post billboards, have roads cut across those paths, show them something of the roads they haven’t traveled. I have stories to tell, interesting stories, and I want to dangle them into front of the players to lure them- rather than forcing choices by laying down tracks. From time to time incidents will lead in a particular direction- a valley that lies ahead. Especially as we get to the end of a campaign, the terrain will get narrower and offer fewer paths, but players can still take a pick axe and clamber up the sides and strike out elsewhere should they decide to.
I want a balance between freedom and guidance. I put in incidents and events for players to react to, and they most often reflect the larger story I have in my head. At the very least they ought to connect to or reflect the themes of the tale I have in my head. The kind of story, more than the literally plotted story. The trick lies in balance- I know when I play, I want some direction. I want some sense of where the story’s going, so that I can react to that. If I know that, I can act to make myself a part of that story or even change it. But absolute freedom, lack of guidance? That’s less fun- I want some conflict, some signposts of play. So my games should point in X direction, but if players go Y or Z or even Green, then I should make that experience equally fun and significant.
HE SAYS THAT’S WHAT HE WANTS BUT…
Now that’s an ideal, a goal and I suspect I don’t live up to that all of the time or even most of the time. For example, the shorter the campaign, the tighter I plot the storylines. As a modern example, Skyrim would seem to be the an exemplar sandbox game. But in the end, your choices remain fairly limited, your impact on the grand plot remains modest. There’s an A or B state at the end. Ideally I’d like the choices the players make in the course of the story matter to what happens in the climax.
See here’s the dirty secret for me of the sandbox and freedom position in rpg games. At least it is my dirty secret, and I’m going to illogically leap to the assumption that it applies to everyone. I could be wrong, but I suspect it lurks in that back of the minds of many GMs, even those who’ve torn up the railroad tracks and driven the train off the top of a dune. I don’t really want my players to end a campaign with the “Bad” ending.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE “WE NEVER FINISHED THE CAMPAIGN…”
Of course, “Bad” is a relative term. The ending of the Wild Bunch, where everyone gets mowed down in a hail of gunfire is, in rpg terms, a "Good" ending. Everyone gets to play out their character and they end up with a satisfying TPK that fits within the genre. Seven Samurai’s the same way, with a few players living though having to move on because of their nature. The other PCs have all gotten cool death scenes. The players have made their choices and gotten opportunities to play and everything fits with the tone of the story.
But bad endings, where the players try and fail, where they make horrible mistakes along the way; or where they make terrible decisions along the way- that’s not fun. Or at least it isn’t as much fun. It may fit for some kinds of games obviously: post-apocalyptic, horror, noir. But I’ll argue that the longer the campaign, the less fun a bad ending becomes. That’s why I don’t run long-term Call of Cthulhu campaigns. And even when I run horror games, if they’re longer than a few sessions, then my focus is on how the players can make a difference- how they can actually battle against the darkness. Instead of the real CoC question of when they’re finally going to fail and fall in the battle against a horror which can never truly be stopped.
And I have had a couple of campaigns in which the players did not “Win Big.” I consider end states on a continuum: Win Big (players ride off into the sunset), Win Small (players win, but the cost had been pretty awful and preventable if they’d made other choices), Neutral (a deadlock), Lose Small (loss, but the players have some small victories and could regroup in another campaign), and Lose Big (absolute failure, based on their own choices and actions). I’ve had all of these happen in campaigns, but I’ll admit much less of the latter than the former. In fact, for non-horror short campaigns, I can only think of one: a superhero campaign where the players managed to compromise their own morals and ideals so completely that they became exactly what they opposed. They lost Big.
But most campaigns aren’t about nihilism, they enact a certain heroic or quest ideal. Given that, how does a GM move things that way without railroading? Without cheating? Without shifting the playing field a little? They don’t, I’d argue. The trick is how much the hide that. I still try to force my campaigns to have consequences, dilemmas and often bad choices the players have to make at the end. I want them to feel some kind of cost and struggle to achieve that victory. But I’ll admit every once in a while the players go down a horrible path, bad choices and alienating allies. It doesn’t happen as much as it used to with my groups. They’re by far smarter than I am and tend to see where I’m going to throw horrible obstacles in front of them. They work hard to reduce those problems through planning.
COULD I CHARGE MONEY FOR A BETTER ENDING AT THE TABLE?
So of course the reason I’m thinking about this SPOILERS is the current buzz SPOILERS about Mass Effect 3 and SPOILERS how some people don’t care for the endings.
Actually, I haven’t played any of the Mass Effect games, primarily because they’re shooters and I’m lame. But in my gaming circle several have. We ended up talking about it a little last session. They’re bothered by the awful choices facing them in the game- in particular "save NPC X or save NPC Y" questions. Used to being able to replay again and again to fix things, places where they have to make those kinds of awful decisions really bother them. Of course that assumes that they like and are invested in both characters. Some NPCs have been with them since the first game, while newly introduced characters might easily get kicked out the airlock. Now know I like tough choices in my games- choices that don’t have an obvious white and black side to them, that have a cost. But as one of my players put it- if they had to choose who would live and who would die between two NPCs they cared for- that they’d campaigned with in my game...well, there’d better be huge payoff for that dramatic choice.
That’s one dimension of the complaints I’m hearing about Mass Effect 3 and the ending. ME 1 & ME2 branched choices out, choices which had a significant effect on the story and the experience. ME3 has even tougher choices to make. However, some people feel that those choices end up thrown out the window when you reach the finale. Essentially the choices you made earlier don’t pay-off or impact the story. Instead those endings are purely a function of the final couple of moments of the game, rendering the work, suffering, and decisions of the earlier games moot.
Mass Effect creates its own problem in promising that the choices made throughout will have an impact. Certainly the early PR has sold the game on that basis. That’s in contrast, honestly, to many of the JRPGs I play and enjoy. Some have multiple endings, but most of those are cosmetic variations. Consider the Final Fantasy series. I enjoy it, but the games really have one of two endings: a) you stop playing or b) you finish and get the ending. Your choices, your contribution affects ease of finishing and possibly the number of achievements you end up with. There’s little expectation about your impact on the actual game world. That’s why I have a love/hate relationship with the two most recent games.
I enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII because it was pretty, it had fun combat and I liked a couple of the characters. But the ending’s a downer, with two characters I liked sacrificing themselves to save everyone. I picked up Final Fantasy XIII-2 and played that to the end. It was pretty, it had fun combat, and I liked one of the characters. I enjoyed some of the new mechanics and the chance to see more locations. But then I reached the end, having played through carefully and uncovering just about everything I could (since some stuff only unlocked post-game). And I won by beating the bad guy and watched everything move towards the good stuff- and then one of the two main characters drops dead. And then the cute mascot collapses and dies. And then the world ends because I failed. Followed by the words “To Be Continued…”
Here’s the thing: that’s the ending. It isn’t like I messed anything up. That’s what you get if you finish the game in the standard way. That seems to me a little dark. And if a GM did that, especially in a railroad-y campaign, I’d probably lose my sh*t right there at the table.
What makes this even more weird and potentially unpleasant is that they have said that they’re not making a sequel. Instead they’d said that they ended the game that way so that they would offer room for DLC. That leaves me two ways of seeing this. On the one hand, this is a blatant money grab. They give you a bad ending for your game such that you have to buy additional content in order to actually get a story that doesn’t punch you in the face. I can buy that from a marketing stand point, but I don’t have to like it. There’s an ironic parallel with the Mass Effect situation, in that people have been demanding a DLC which offers an alternate ending, or at least some kind of more satisfying coda.
There’s another way of reading this: that the FFXIII-2 team thought that was a reasonable ending. Perhaps the game is about the bleakness of existence, about the inability to change one’s destiny. Perhaps the cyclical nature of the game, with its time travel aspects is meant to echo those themes. Maybe, like Neon Genesis Evangelion or Watchmen, it’s a middle finger in the face of their fandom. It could be a commentary on the nature of video games itself. I doubt it, and I’m not sure if that makes me any happier than the corporate greed reading.
YOU GOT YOUR PLOT IN MY SANDBOX…
Tabletop sandbox games have to offer an ending or they just stop being run. Or at least I'd argue that if they don't offer a coherent ending, they end up weaker. A couple of things make crafting a satisfying ending for a sandbox game more difficult. The first lies in the kinds of conflict they offer. Sandbox games often allow players to avoid conflicts outside their comfort zone. In other words those with real stakes, those with added pressures or those not involving physical combat. A truly sandbox game, without restrictions, allows players to do all of the prep and planning- the equivalent of “leveling up” before heading into a situation. If players develop that approach, they may react badly when the GM tries to offer obstacles or additional complications to the setting. They’d rather have control of the stakes and choices and make those on their own terms. Time pressures, traditionally a useful tool for moving things forward, may be resented by players who fight any time lapse.
But that’s a more extreme case. I think a more common difficulty facing sandbox games concerns story resonance. Novels, films, comic books set up a spine to their story. They have controlling ideas, often supported by symbolism, allusion or mention throughout the story. Often these reflect values of the protagonist and the questioning of those values. Earlier references and details can help reinforce the theme of the story and give it more weight or resonance. That’s tougher with an interactive story. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of the reasons that Mass Effect 3 tightened the chain of choices, rather than expanding them, was to add weight to the story they told: to make everything show have a role and place in underscoring those themes. A tabletop game faces similar challenges if the game is truly open. At the very least it adds complexity to the kind of improvisation a GM needs in order to craft a sandbox game into a coherent story over the course of the campaign.
Of course I’m making a value assessment: that a game with a story is better than one without. It seems obvious to me that it is, but the question lies in what actually serves as a “story” over the course of play…
As I was writing this The Rhetorical Gamer posted an excellent piece on related topics: "Thoughts on Campaign Down Design"
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