Monday, 23 December 2013

Feckless Wastrels

I was supposed to be doing all kinds of other things, but a random particle of inspiration has hit some part of my brain, and I must write.

The thought process for this started with listening to The Walking Eye reviewing/discussing They Became Flesh. Apparently it's a very rules-light game, and they were saying something about how the PCs failing a Miracle roll was the spur for the GM to implement one of their actions, or something. I don't really remember because at that point my brain went off on a train of thought something like:

  • Failing rolls
  • Failure is interesting
  • What would happen if you had a game where you were trying to fail at things?
  • What sort of game could possibly support that?
  • Various flashes of idea that all seem more like a board game rather than an RPG - getting parents to leave you in a life of idleness, undermining plans as a disgruntled civil servant, avoiding housework as a feckless husband... but very one-dimensional sorts of games really. You'd just be totting up points or something.
  • Sudden brain linkage to PG Wodehouse.

It struck me you could potentially have a game where you play affluent, idle rich characters in a slightly larger-than-life setting who are trying to combine several goals: having a jolly good time, achieving whatever goals have crossed your whimsical mind recently, and (most importantly) avoiding anything resembling hard work. This might be involved enough to actually be interesting as an RPG.

What is Feckless Wastrels?

In Feckless Wastrels, you play the scions of various wealthy and/or influential families in a pseudo-Edwardian British setting (although it could probably be transferred to equivalent settings elsewhere). You may be rich or poor, of ancient noble stock or a rising industrial lineage, but you mix in the Right Circles nowadays, going to races and drinking cocktails, throwing bread rolls and putting on amateur dramatics. Once in a while you hop across the Atlantic, or nip over to the south of France for a repairing lease. And this leisurely and enjoyable state of affairs must continue!

The life of a wastrel is not as simple as it might appear. Danger lurks on all corners. Aunts plot unwelcome marriages to strait-laced bores or the kind of girls who talk about Spinoza. Friends of the family declare it's high time you were settling down. Siblings, themselves resigned to domestic bliss, are determined to lug you into it as well, or at the very least to offload some of their own work on you. Uncles insist that hard work would make a new man of you; cousins that any respectable woman should be able to earn a living. Parents look aghast at bar tabs and mutter alarmingly about allowances. Wherever you turn, there are attempts to drag you into employment, demands to entertain nephews, Bonny Baby prizes to present, policemen accusing you of pinching umbrellas when it was merely an honest misunderstanding, blackmail attempts, unfortunate runs of luck followed by bailiffs, and all manner of difficulties. On the other side of the equation, one finds a constant stream of old pals experiencing romantic difficulties, sneering acquaintances needing a put-down, really good tips on dark horses, family mansions in danger of purchase by ghastly American plutocrats, beloved relatives menaced by overbearing Dukes, jewel thieves and enough other obligations to make a fellow quite faint - another one, please, and make it a double.

The successful wastrel must delicately balance their activities. Relatives must be convinced, regularly, that one is simply no use whatsoever; that it is hopeless to think of employment, dangerous to demand favours, and undesirable to seek out potential spouses. On the other hand, there are allowances to think of, reputations to keep sully-free, and a certain minimum level of family affection to maintain. One has one's pride. Moreover, while some obligations are deeply unwelcome, others are matters of honour and pride. It is one thing to wriggle free of a School Treat and evade the clutches of a fish-featured suitor; quite another to leave a pal in the lurch or allow a belligerent uncle to learn of mater's gambling debts. Thus, there is a balance to strike between ineptitude and brilliance.

Basically, the idea is that you're trying to either succeed or fail at things, with failure being prominent. The player, of course, may want rather more failures than the PC would, because it's more entertaining. Various factors influence your successs; for example, your Pride may sabotage your plans to crash out of a competition in the early stages, while conflicting demands from NPCs may interfere indirectly. You try to keep public success and failure within certain bounds, otherwise you're in danger: appear too competent and you'll risk being forced into a job or given additional onerous family duties, but complete ineptitude may leave you sent off to a stern relative for emergency coaching, cut off from the funds, socially stranded or otherwise in trouble. What happens in private, of course, is another matter - providing it stays private.

As your reputation rises and falls, you'd get different kinds of opportunities and challenges to deal with. You'd be trying to manage a small number of trackers to keep yourself comfortable and avoid work (though of course the player doesn't necessarily want to do that).

System

This would be basically a trait-based system, I think. You'd want background because the difference between a poor aristocrat and a wealthy industrialist are pretty substantial in the demands placed on you and your options. You'd want a few personality-type traits, probably at different levels, because I think things like managing your Pride should be relevant. And you'd have a handful of specific traits that highlight anything else important about your character.

Importantly, you'd also have a Reputation tracker that shifts according to what people know about you. Possibly, public failures/successes would influence your Reputation while private ones would influence Pride? Although I'm thinking you might want a stat to track your social/peer reputation and honour, a stat for personal pride, and a stat for how feckless you appear - being feckless but trustworthy is a perfectly reasonable option. So we'll think about that.

Traits and your current trackers would influence your success and failure, not always in the way you want. Pride might push you to do better at things regardless of whether you want to. A reputation for fecklessness might help out, or make it hard to get things done. Being trusted will place demands on you, but being untrusted will make it hard to learn secrets or get favours. I might do this with a GM intervention thing, where the GM can call in your trackers, or just with a modifier on rolls.

I'll probably play with this a bit and come back to it, but I wanted to get the idea down while I had it.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Nassan: bully for you

The group historian, Bisclavret, assesses the area and assures them that it is indeed a ruined temple complex, dating back several hundred years. It's difficult to say any more from a distance.

The group decide to go with the probabilities and head straight for the surviving building. They approach with some caution in case anyone's sneaking about, and decide to aim for a gap in the walls rather than trying the main door. As a result, they enter through the back of the structure.

This proves to be a good move, because within the building they hear the sounds of movement, and quickly take cover. Unfortunately, Adrik trips over a stone and sends it clattering along with a resounding echo. Twisted shapes emerge, hopping and shambling, from the murk. They are a hideous sight, a twisted combination of diseased toad and wizened ape, and their faces show only loathing. These sad, horrible creatures are bullywugs, thought by scholars to be incarnations of paradox. They croak revoltingly and bound towards the party, who quickly move to use a handy gap in the walls as a bottleneck, with Adrik and Bisclavret bearing the brunt of the combat. The creatures bound heedlessly over crumbling walls to flail at the adventurers with crude weapons, their apparently uncaring as to their own fates. After a tough fight, with the bullywugs are despatched, and their pitiful visages relax into a strange kind of peacefulness.

The building has long been empty and nothing of professional interest remains, though there are some nice botanical specimens around here. Weather and time, and encroaching nature, have eroded any sign of the temple's original purpose. Finding the trail of their quarry, they follow it to a side-chamber where a trapdoor can be easily seen; recent use has shifted the grime around it.

Acrid, rising smoke warns the party that something is alive down here, and they carefully traipse downwards, discovering a large room that was once a study of some kind. Huge shelves stand around the walls, though some have toppled and most are somewhat broken. The fallen shelves, and some other ancient furniture, jut like islands from the muddy ground. To nobody's surprise, there are several more bullywugs here, engaged in inexplicable behaviour that quickly turns to hostility. Myraneth's sharp eyes deduce that the centre of the room is very boggy, and rather than rushing in, they proceed cautiously. Though the bullywugs attempt to lure them into the deep mud, Myraneth and Raylin hurl bolts of energy to pin them down while the others try to leap across to engage them. Unfortunately, Adrik lands awkwardly and slips back into the quagmire, sinking up to his shoulders in rank mud. The bullywugs take immediate advantage and land some heavy blows, but are forced back long enough for the dwarf to extract himself and wreak vengeance on them. Bullywugs despatched to the bliss of non-existence, the party rest long enough to recover their breath.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Bringing Back The Funk(ing Investigators), part three

So in the last two posts I talked about why Investigators might leave an investigation (more broadly, why PCs might abandon a plot thread), and ways of reigniting it. But is it a good idea? That's very difficult to say generally, but I think there are significant genre factors at play here in terms of producing a satisfying experience for everyone.

In OlderNick’s original situation, the Investigators had fled the town of Dewsbury after an encounter with a Dark Young. Some of the suggestions for getting them involved again were (in roughly the same order as I discussed earlier):

  • A friend or acquaintance went looking for them in Dewsbury and has disappeared.
  • Kidnap one of the characters and have them implanted, without a clear memory of what's happened.
  • Have one of the coven implanted with a Dark Young visit the Investigators and die.
  • News articles about people disappearing, or even the whole village, cost the Investigators Sanity until they go off to deal with it.
  • Nightmares, possibly inspired by ghosts of the dead.
  • Let it fester for a while, maybe drop in anecdotes or news reports, until they feel the urge to tie up old loose ends.
  • Fast-forward a couple of decades and have new Investigators, perhaps linking clues to the old ones.

These are all reasonable suggestions. Quite a few of them depend on the players keeping the same Investigators so they can be affected by these things. If you run a campaign-style group, that's straightforward enough, and it doesn't require any particular commitment to revisit the mystery. That setup would work well with drip-drip techniques where you keep playing other scenarios, while slowly drawing the Investigators and plot together again. If it turns out they all die, or would rather do something else, then you can go that way instead and drop the Dewsbury case, or revive it with new characters, as you prefer.

If you tend to play one-shots, things are potentially trickier; in particular, drip-feed methods won't work as such because there's no in-game time to exploit. It could be difficult to run that in a way that doesn't seem forced and predetermined; if you're running the first part of the scenario just to put in the events that drag the Investigators back in, it might not feel convincing and they will flail around for things to do in the meantime. If you can find something else for them to do for a session or two, and drop the clues or odd events around that, it might work better. Obviously, quick techniques like the missing friend above, or attacks on the Investigators, can be much simpler to handle in such cases.

Other considerations are the type of game and world you're running. In a campaign with many separate plot hooks, dropping one and moving on may not be a big deal. In a complex campaign with heavy metaplot, dropping a blossoming bit of plot before it's resolved* may complicate things for the GM and lead to lots of work to tie up loose ends and maintain consistency. Some genres (like low fantasy, or indeed low anything) tend to be forgiving of protagonists who shrug and move on to the next town, without too much trouble in terms of breaching expectations; success and interesting gameplay isn't just about defeating the antagonist. If you're just looking for a rich experience, then an interesting failure can be as good as an interesting success.

* Note that here I don't mean it's bad for the PCs not to stick through until the official end of Plot. However, if a major plot element gets introduced but doesn't see enough screen-time to resolve its implications in some way, things can get complicated. Perhaps the GM doesn't want to arbitrarily declare major consequences in one direction or another, and was expecting the PCs' actions to determine that. Perhaps it just raises questions about other parts of the setting, or undermines it. If the element is revealed but the PCs don't touch it for in-game ages, then perhaps it really should have had all kinds of consequences during that time.

I wouldn’t go back there for anything!

So why do I think that drawing the Investigators back into the Dewsbury mystery might not be the best of the options available?

In this case, there are a couple of main factors. One major point is that it seems to be a location-based scenario, and the other is that it's Call of Cthulhu.

Location-based

Plots centred around a particular location are especially prone to motivation problems (which is not to have a go at those plots). If the mystery is in Cultville, the Investigators must be brought back to Cultville by hook or by crook. However, it can be quite difficult to justify the Investigators doing it of their own accord, especially where motives are fairly trivial. D&D is vulnerable to this issue because of its heavy dungeoneering focus combined with a questy approach to motivation; it tends to get around it by encouraging the creation of PCs who are inclined to go and raid dungeons full of arbitary monsters. Mission-based games skip right over the problem. In games with a less focused playstyle, the question of why the PCs should go to X and do Y is always hovering.

The Haunting is a pretty good example of a scenario with this problem: the Investigators are usually very loosely involved, so if they get scared off they have little incentive to go back. In particular, their motivation is extrinsic rather than intrinsic. And given that the antagonist's sole motivation is to scare them off, those dovetail nicely into a problem.

So self-motivation is tricky. On the other hand, heavy-handed methods can seem implausible or even unreasonable. Using the Dewsbury examples, why should the cultists go to the lot of effort to hunt down and kidnap an Investigator for implantation when there’s plenty of unsuspecting easy prey closer to hand? There is nothing special about the Investigators, so far. Sanity-draining news reports could work very well, or it could seem like railroading. The same applies to dreams, as well as some other problems - do all the characters get awful dreams, which stretches plausibility? Are they all equally affected? If not, will one player feel like they’re being victimised? And will the others be convinced they need to return to their investigation just because Professor Smith is haunted by maddening dreams, or just send him to a psychiatrist? Do they share the dreams, or indeed the news reports, with each other, and why? That will probably only work if there’s a strong connection between them in the first place, which isn’t always the case.

Location-based scenarios aren't the only problem, though. If a plot involves moving from place to place, PCs may want to proceed with the journey rather than stay to meddle in things; this is particularly true if they have a good reason for pressing on with their journey, be it metaplot or personal goals. If the plot involves a particular person, the PCs may not want to keep monitoring her or socialising with her, especially if they think she's a wrong'un. If the plot's very intricate, they may not want to follow up the leads they have.

Call of Cthulhu expectations

As an investigative horror game, Call of Cthulhu doesn't have the same parameters for success as some other genres. The details will depend on the group's preferences, but generally speaking, a "successful" scenario might mean surviving, escaping, or even just encountering something weird. Plenty of groups have fun going mad and dying. The stories that inspire them very frequently feature protagonists discovering a hideous truth and running away from it: The Lurking Fear, The Whisperer in Darkness, The Nameless City and even The Call of Cthulhu itself have this structure. The nature of the game, and the material it draws on, lend themselves quite readily to scenarios ending with panic-stricken flight, so this kind of ending may be very satisfying to a group who appreciate this authentic Lovecraftian conclusion. Obviously, if you enjoy different parts of the game and the setting, that may not be the case.

Other dark games, like Unknown Armies may find it works similarly, and that leaving the horror firmly alone once you manage to get away from it is the most satisfying option, rather than trying to find justifications for the characters to keep prodding it.

More generally, I think this is most likely to be the case in game where the PCs are relatively weak, and where they are not part of a larger organisation that can support them. These factors encourage the idea that the game isn’t all about you. If you’re taking orders from an organisation, or even just part of an egalitarian Justice League or whatever, it’s relatively difficult to justify abandoning a problem that you’re genuinely worried about (as opposed to one you aren’t interested in). That being said, on the flipside, the group could decide that they would pass on their gen to the organisation and more senior members would take over, leaving them free to move on; the special forces move in, or top-rank secret agents begin investigating, or the King dispatches powerful mages to deal with the problem. This allows a situation to be dealt with (reducing metaplot problems and logical issues about wht happens next) without obliging the party to do it if that makes little sense in context. Of course, they might be brought in on the periphery of the operation to advise on the precise nature of the threat.

Let them cower

In the original thread, I recommended OlderNick (in his situation) to accept the Investigators’ decision. Allow them to drop the investigation and get on with their lives as best they can. The cultists have won - for now. I’ve already mentioned some of the new opportunities this can offer, but fundamentally I think there are two advantages.

The first is that it can support the roleplaying aspects of the game by encouraging players to go with what seems appropriate, rather than what the situation seems to demand. If giving up a fruitless search, or running away, are accepted as just as valid ways to respond to the story as sticking like glue to an investigation that offers madness, horrible death and the disbelief of anyone you tell about it, then everyone has more room to work with. It doesn’t necessarily matter what kind of game you’re playing here; a heroic fantasy game could be enriched by an impossible quest and its learning experiences, and a mission-based military game could get interesting when you deal with the fallout of abandoning your mission, although admittedly in some cases it would get you executed.

Secondly, if you decide to revisit the scenario with a new group, it adds layers to the story. The first group of PCs look into the mystery and give up. A second group appear, perhaps years later, and benefit from the actions and research of the original group; they may even appear as NPCs in this second investigation. A story that’s already driven off one set of well-meaning PCs may be more tantalising or ominous. In a broad sense, what this approach does is add depth to the story. Although it won’t always work, unexpected developments like PCs backing out offer some new opportunities, and might lead to some really novel scenarios. The sinister cult has overwhelmed Cultville and fulfilled their immediate aims, so what do they do next? The rune-carved monolith has hummed its strange song into the night for nine full moons, so what happens when the creature it’s calling arrives? The Shan have each found a body from the top brass of the ship, so what are their plans?

Depending on the circumstances, the PCs may have seriously disrupted the antagonists' plans before retreating, or alerted others to the fact that something is up, which might completely change the expected sequence of events. Some of the cult might be arrested if there’s been trouble (especially, given the period, if they’re foreigners). Items that cultists or creatures expected to use may have been removed or destroyed, so they need to track them down or think up a new plan. Some of their allies may have been killed, perhaps taking vital information with them and delaying for months their plan to summon Cthugha. If they think they’ve been compromised, certain adversaries will abandon their base and move elsewhere, which may require a completely different setup to achieve similar ends. Perhaps the Investigators opened a portal and fled after barely vanquishing the horror that emerged; what else might come through, or who else might find it? Or what happens to the powerful Mythos tome they abandoned in their hotel when they never return to pay their bills?

Looking again at some other genres, a more warlike setting like Pathfinder or Numenera is perhaps even more flexible here. Undefeated enemies can easily have grown in strength and expanded to take over a swathe of territory. The composition of their armies may change; any notables slain by the PCs may be replaced, or even raised as undead servants (or bionic servitors, or brains in jars). They might turn from banditry to diplomacy or even trade, depending if they're Evil or simply bad, because pragmatism is a thing.

In a more espionage-like game full of secrets, which might include social games, it may not really matter whether the PCs actually stopped their antagonists' plans. The mere fact of discovery may cause enormous headaches, changes of plan, changes in power balance, new alliances, covers-up and similar countermeasures that mean the situation changes greatly. You don't get far in subterfuge by not taking precautions. At the same time, if their manipulations have paid off, they may be in a very different position from where they started - which likely makes them stronger, but also leaves them adjusting to a new situation, and potentially off-balance.

Another point worth considering is that the PCs may have become relevant to the antagonists’ plans, in which case their disappearance is a huge pain for said antagonist. As a result, the new incarnation of the scenario might begin with the antagonists trying to capture the original PCs, providing a hook for for a new party. In The Call of Cthulhu, the original investigators were being hunted down by a cult decades after making their discoveries. In other stories, protagonists learn towards the end that they’ve been tainted or otherwise affected by their exposure to something weird, and this might be the basis for the new chapter.

This Is The End

Coming back to the beginning... the last option is, as I said, to just stop the whole thing right there. No follow-up, no sequels. Sometimes, just ending with a terror-stricken retreat is the best ending you could wish for. It’s certainly very appropriate for a horror game. It can produce a really strong and memorable story (which is a consummation devoutly to be wished), and allow some really compelling roleplaying. Quite a number of Lovecraft’s stories end with the protagonist surviving some nightmare event and living with the knowledge that Horror Is Still Among Us.

It also has some side benefits. Just letting things take their course will add a spice to future games. Players know that they can choose to run away, and that’s a choice you’ll support. They’ll know that they can actually just lose. They’ll know that the story actually isn’t all about their characters, that it’s an event they get swept up in and respond to however they do. They might know all that already, but it’s nice to be reminded of it.

However, there are definitely situations where it's not appropriate. The group might find that option frustrating and be desperately keen to come back to the mystery, in which case why punish yourselves? Some genres also really don't suit that kind of resolution; anything from Golden Age superheroes to Space Marines to Looney Toons doesn't really embrace the idea of the favoured protagonists walking away and leaving a problem unresolved, because that’s just not how those stories work.


So that’s my thoughts on resuming plot threads, and why I think trying to restart an abandoned investigation isn’t always the best option. However, there will be plenty of situations where it is, and can offer some interesting opportunities. In the end it’s a balancing act between metagame considerations, characterisation, genre and all that stuff.

Portraying Settings

A mildly less sleep-deprived and hopefully shorter return to the theme of rulebook content.

Specifically, I'll try to actually answer Shannon's question instead of rambling incoherently about other stuff.

So, what is useful in presenting a setting? I freely admit I'm not the best person to answer this because I've mostly played RPGs whose content I was already familiar with, from generic fantasy D&D to the metal insanity of Warhammer 40,000. But I'll give it a go.

Mood

One thing that I think is important, but not easy or straightforward to convey, is the general mood of the setting and its inhabitants. Although some settings may be played in multiple tones, in general they seem to lean towards particular tones because tone is partly a feature of setting mood and setting features.

For example, a setting based on early 20th century science fiction will tend to have an optimistic mood. Humanity is generally in a state of steady progress, even if they're at war. Problems are generally solvable. Enemies are fearsome, but will be overcome; often enemies aren't the traditional kind, but mistakes, problems or forces of nature that Science or Guts or Humanity will cope with. The population might be pessimistic about some major problem, but are usually not downtrodden, treacherous (on a species scale), every-man-for-himself or nihilistic.

In contrast, the default setting for 4E D&D is what you might call embattled heroism. The setting is explicitly "points of light in a dark world". Civilisations have come and crumbled. Savage monsters, bizarre magic and murderous evil creatures run rampant, while from the ranks of the remaining civilised races come not pioneering scientists and Aces of the Interstellar Guard, but thieves' guilds, sinister cults, self-interested nobles and other villains. While larger settlements and kingdoms might seem content, everyone is aware that invasion, monsters or disasters are always lurking on the horizon. Even the civilised kingdoms tend to feature deeply unequal societies, inter-species tensions and miscellaneous injustices. Powerful wizards stand coldly observing as orcs demolish the nearby town, unwilling to intervene. All too often, villages call in heroes for aid, only to demand payment for equipment vital to said salvation.

Mood can also include a general sense of things like how people feel about the government, how stringent laws are and how law-abinding people are, and how large-minded NPCs will be about unusual and unreasonable behaviour from the PCs. In Shannon's example, it's a wartime setting, and these can go either way. In some cases, extraordinary behaviour is expected because there's a war on. In other cases (such as when invasion is imminent) the populace are constantly suspicious of any departure from the norm, and the uniformed services are on the case like a shot if anything's reported. This kind of information can help illustrate the expected approaches, attitudes and behaviours of the PCs.

Daily life

Another useful thing is to outline the general hustle and bustle that surrounds the PCs. It's hard to demonstrate what's interesting and relevant if the players and GM aren't sure what's normal. This can vary from showing how NPCs tend to spend their time (which may also be what PCs do in downtime), to setting the boundaries of "ordinary". If an orc walks into your bar, is that utterly trivial (city full of orcs), mildly unusual (numerous friendly orcs), noteworthy (orcs are rare or hostile), unheard-of (orcs are hated or banned) or cause for panic (orcs are exclusively seen in rampaging hordes)? If something magical occurs, a rift in space-time opens or the ship receives a distress call, are those strange and noteworthy events, or par for the course?

Similarly, some general information on the type of economy and occupations common to the setting can be enlightening. Is it largely a subsistence economy, mercantile, capitalist? Do people tend to choose their occupations, or are they constrained by heredity, feudalism, government diktats, an all-seeing Computer or the visions of oracles? Even in a modern-day setting, specific regions and cities vary considerably in the major industries and occupations, and these have significant influences on everyday life. You can infer an awful lot from knowing that Townsville is a large dormitory town, Smogburg is a declining industrial city, Twaddlehampton is a village full of authors who fled the city and retired senior managers, and Mucking is a rural hamlet where people actually work on farms.

In fact, let me draw some inferences to demonstrate.

  • Townsville probably has few local amenities. Everyone shops at the out-of-town supermarkets on the way home, drives the kids to school and either watches the telly at home or goes to the city of an evening. There'll be some takeaways, and bored teenagers kicking walls. Clubs, churches and libraries will be small and mostly empty; nobody feels part of a community. Most are probably here "temporarily", even if they have been for several decades. The people work in white-collar jobs, but not very well-paid ones. There are few buses, and they take long, inconvenient routes. Most people don't know their neighbours, let alone any local gossip, and they keep to themselves unless something really dramatic happens.
  • Smogburg is mostly poor. There's heavy unemployment, decrepid buildings and a notable crime rate. Fine old buildings, built in the flush of the industrial revolution, are often boarded up or fire-damaged. Sixties concrete monstrosities are everywhere, held together by the fly-posters of decades. Cheap alchohol shops, takeaways, pound shops, charity shops and moneylenders are frequent; there is probably Marks and Spencer, but no Waitrose for miles. Despite this, community groups are stronger than in Townsville, as people feel part of something. The streets feature charity collectors, Big Issue sellers and evangelical preachers. Fat tower blocks loom sullenly over the horizon, some of them brightly coloured from recent renovations that seemed cheaper than knocking them down. There are interesting shops here, but not the quirky hipster kind; Smogburg is cheap enough that almost anything can stay open somewhere, often in a single room over a charity shop, even when they only make one sale a week. You can buy almost anything useful here, if you can only find it. People are often willing to talk, particularly in the town centre; some of the estates and tower blocks are a different matter unless they know you. Generally, neighbours know one another, even if they don't like each other, and plenty of people were born and bred here.
  • Twaddlehampton has a number of thatched cottages, some of which weren't even originally thatched. Most of the houses have gardens, which are lovingly tended. There are wide pavements, and people stop to talk in the streets; few of them have lived here more than a decade. Life has a slow pace. People pride themselves on their community spirit; life is full of village halls, tea dances, policemen's balls, Scouts and Guides, National Trusts, the more traditional-sounding kind of churches (whose rather good associated schools are a non-negligible cause of their large congregations) and Best Kept Gardens. Everyone either prides themselves on not owning a car, drives something old and cinematic, or has a massive 4x4. Nobody wears tracksuits unless they're jogging. There are numerous village shops with tradition names like Jones and Son, several caf├ęs, and pubs that serve both Yorkshire puddings and something with chorizo and jus. People are Pillars of the Community, but also gossip ferociously and harbour deep grievances. The surrounding region is rural, but in a mildly scenic way, and the roads are well-maintained and offer surprisingly quick access to the nearest city. There are no major roads through the village, and no wind farms nearby. Strangers will struggle to get plot-relevant information unless they seem like they "fit in".
  • Mucking has houses that are generally in pretty good nick, but have clearly been patched and cobbled together repeatedly. Old extensions show where tiny farm cottages have turned into houses more or less acceptable for the modern era, with lots of outbuildings in strange places, now serving unexpected turns as motorbike storage or generator room. There might, possibly, be a post office. A major road runs at least nearby, and likely through the middle of the hamlet; it probably seemed like a good idea in the age of the mailcoach, but now it's almost impossible to get your car out of the garage, even with the mirrors stuck all over the place to spot oncoming vehicles. Everybody drives a 4x4, because the roads have a 45-degree incline and it snows a lot here. When the rains come, they paddle instead. A tiny village shop offers newspapers, a number of mundane items, and five or six really odd things for reasons you can't imagine; it's open sporadically and unpredictably. People will either talk to you for several hours without drawing breath, or clam up instantly when they hear a "foreign" accent. Intimate knowledge of their neighbours and local area is almost inevitable. Travelling around the region is nigh-impossible unless you have good maps or local knowledge; the roads are tiny, winding and occasionally terminate in the middle of a field.
  • If something weird happened in a house last night, the people of Townsville won't know anything about it. Smogburg will have noticed something, and word will have gone around, but they might not want to discuss it with you (especially if you look like trouble). Mucking will probably know something but won't like to gossip unless they dislike that neighbour. Twaddlehampton will act like they don't want to gossip, but need very little prodding.
  • You can believably pick up an occult book in both Smogburg (in a market or from a shoplet over a chippy) or Twaddlehampton (in a rather nice second-hand bookshop or church fair), but certainly not in Townsville. Mucking might have some, but not in the shops; they'll be old family things.
  • The police will turn out quickly in Smogburg (because real trouble happens there) and Twaddlehampton (because the middle-class residents are very vocal), but are much less responsive in Townsville and Mucking where urgent problems are rare. Police visiting Twaddlehampton tend to be polite, appear to take things seriously, and don't; police visiting Smogburg are cautious, somewhat jaded and suspicious of accounts. In Townsville they are pretty matter-of-fact about the graffiti and stolen cars.
  • The average minister in Smogburg is likely to be from a humble background, evangelical and has a good chance of being from an ethnic minority; they have a very good idea about the sad and seedy sides of life. Twaddlehampton has an Anglican vicar, of course, who went to Cambridge and is very good at the theological side. Mucking's little parish church features an ex-farmer with excellent knowledge of working life and a pragmatic outlook, who can help birth a cow, get a tractor out of a ditch, and has attended a fair number of nasty accidents. If Townsville still has a minister at all, they are probably Methodist, fairly cheerful, very ordinary, work part-time as a nurse as well as running three local churches

How educated (and/or misinformed) do people tend to be about the world, other people, science and magic? This will inform their opinions, their reactions to events and their openness to new ideas. Is this a setting where knowledge is free, a melting-pot of ideas, an ignorant hotbed of superstition, a jingoistic and xenophobic world, or under the sway of a despotic government that imposes ideas it finds convenient?

Other features of daily life might be the species and cultural make-up of a setting, the technological and magical prowess of the major civilisations, and where life falls on the scale from Galactic Harmony to There Is Only War.

Unusual features

Now that we know something about the ordinary, what is extraordinary? These (in most games) will indicate the sorts of things the PCs get involved in. It can be a mixture of "things that are unique about this setting" and "things that are particularly important in this setting". PC-centric features may be long-standing problems, interesting places, organisations, events and so on. Predatory monsters are one example; powerful psionic guilds are another. An array of unexplored worlds in a sci-fi setting indicates that PCs might usefully spend time exploring them; a network of monuments left by a vanished race tends to suggest that more on this topic can emerge. If bandits are constantly holed up around the countryside attacking merchants, PCs may be called on to act as guards or bounty hunters, whereas if supernatural beings are rumoured to turn up occasionally but not officially acknowledged to exist, it's more likely PCs are going to encounter them through accident or investigation. As such, to some extent the nature of these features will depend on the game genre, particularly in terms of how well-known the unusual features are.

D&D frequently features predatory monsters that need stopping, ancient ruins that need exploring, and unknown parts that need knowing. Deathwatch, by its nature, highlights alien incursions that must be stopped, but there are also wrecks to scour, monuments to investigate, heretics to hunt down and powerful Imperial emissaries to negotiate with. Traveller features anything from alien ruins to drifting spaceships, astronomical anomalies to trade disputes, but the Corporations are a relatively mundane feature that is nevertheless very prominent in shaping PC activities. Ravenloft's most notable features are the array of sinister rulers who empathically shape both their domains and their subjects, and the constant threat of the undead.

As best I can describe it, you're looking at the kind of things that players and PCs alike are expected to take notice of. These are departures from everyday life, and things that make the PCs want (or have) to do something, whether that's grab a blaster, hit the library or start planning a road trip. In some games, these overlap with hooks, although they may not be designed to introduce specific adventures in the way hooks are. In other games (investigative games may be a good example) these will tend to turn up sometime after the initial hook; the "letter from an old friend" draws you in, but the antediluvian artefacts and the dreams they're provoking are the meat of the scenario.

These are also likely to be the features that help to sell a setting. Where the daily grind details establish the broad sweep of the setting, it's the cool details that really bring it to life and inspire the GM with ideas. This is the sort of thing that has you imagining how you, personally, could use it.

...I don't feel like I'm explaining this very well, but I tried.

Coherence

Settings may be very focused or patchwork as anything, but either can be made to work. One of the important things here is establishing coherence. What I mean by that is giving a sense of how these things fit together in a single setting, both in a broad sense, and in a practical sense for the GM. The real world, for example, has wildly varying levels of technological sophistication in different places, even within the same country. In a game, though, where it's harder to convey the nuances and gradual shifts that create those real-life situations, disparities can seem unconvincing. Our recent Numenera game took place over a small area that encompassed a wilderness, a forest town besieged by animals, a spa town (which in my head is all Georgian, although I suspect Monte Cook has never been to Bath or Harrogate) and what felt like a Midwest frontier town. Especially for a first game, this didn't feel particularly coherent to me.

I can't really offer any specific advice here, because every instance has different features to integrate. Deathwatch mashes up astonishing feats of heroism, a brutal and oppressive culture, high technology and astonishing ignorance, in a way that allows for everything from primitive jungle planets to towering hive-cities, and lets PCs and NPCs alike pull off technological tricks while remaining suspicious and wilfully ignorant of unknown machinery. The setting allows for mysteries, brutal combats, oppression, NPCs interfering in the PCs' lives and missions, PCs exerting authority on those below them, paranoia, blind faith in authority figures and a range of moral approaches from stark black-and-white to flat grey.

If there are a lot of "yes, but why..." questions to be asked about the setting, substantial discrepancies, or dramatic gradients of some feature or other, then these either want to be sources of plot and interest for the characters (good in games where PCs don't understand much in-character, and where the world is odd) or need explaining.

I think to some extent it doesn't matter how cool the individual features of a setting are, if the GM (and thus the players) can't establish a coherent vision of the setting, they will struggle to run satisfactory games in it. It's like the difference between a vignette and a story. You can't improvise around a framework that isn't there; a pile of individual scaffolding bars isn't enough, no matter how shiny each one is. It's important to be able to make predictions, draw inferences, and otherwise play around the things that are made explicit, without finding yourself at a loss or contradicting important aspects of the setting.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Problems that aren't with Boxed Text

A post that doesn't really go anywhere, as usual.

Arthur pointed me to a post at Hack & Slash, which led to me various other posts including a rather good one from Critical Hits that includes the following quite fun example:

“Your trip through the Forest of Demise was uneventful. The chittering of forest animals and chirping of birds that serenaded you through the forest suddenly ends, as if the creatures of the natural world shun and fear this place. In the distance, you see a tower sticking out of the ground like an evil, twisted tree reaching up to the sky. As you approach the tower, the crunching of the dead leaves under your feet seems almost deafening in the otherwise silent clearing. As you get within 20 feet of the tower, you realize the place is surrounded by a nearly invisible noxious vapor. As you breathe it in, its stench burns your lungs and makes your eyes water. The hairs on your arms bristle with terror and your heart pounds as an anguished shriek cuts through the silence from within the tower. You can feel the palpable presence of evil. On the door to the tower you see four glowing runes.”

Now picture, if you will, a typical D&D party. For this example, the edition is really irrelevant. We have Pedritar the dragonborn paladin, Brark the grimlock barbarian, Clang the warforged cleric, Dirzzelda the Druid, and Rhuul the revenant rogue. The party is approaching the tower-lair of Lystrango the evil lich of doom. As they move forward, the DM begins to read the boxed text:


DM: Everyone ready? I have your marching order? Great, let’s start with the opening boxed text! “Your trip through the Forest of Demise was uneventful. The chittering of forest animals and chirping of birds that serenaded you through the forest suddenly ends, as if the creatures of the natural world shun and fears this place. In the—“
Drizzelda the Druid:: Why?
DM: Why what?
Drizzelda the Druid:: Why do they shun this place?
DM: [confused stare]
Drizzelda the Druid:: I’m a druid. I ask that squirrel over there why he stopped chittering.
DM: Um. He tells you that he and all the forest animals are afraid of the tower in the clearing ahead. Let me jumped ahead to that. “In the distance, you see a tower sticking out of—”
Brark the Barbarian: Nope.
DM: Nope what?
Brark the Barbarian: Nope I don’t see it. I’m a grimlock. Got no eyes.
DM: Right, ok. “Everyone but Brark sees a tower sticking out the ground like an evil, twisted tree reaching up to the sky.”
Drizzelda the Druid:: I talk to it. I can talk to plants too.
DM: Huh?
Drizzelda the Druid:: You said there was a tree sticking out of the ground.
DM: It’s not really a tree. It’s like a tree. “As you approach the tower, the crunching of the dead leaves under your feet seems almost deafening in the silence.”
Rhuul the Rogue:: I don’t walk on the dead leaves. I try to be silent.
DM: OK, I guess you can avoid the leaves. But it’s not really that imp—
Pedritar the Paladin:: I’m not walking. I’m flying. Remember I took that feat that gives me wings and a fly speed.
DM: Got it. Pedro is flying and Rhuul is tiptoeing around the leaves. Anyway, let’s continue. “As you get within 20 feet of the tower, you realize the place is surrounded by a nearly invisible noxious vapor. As you breathe it in, its stench burns your lungs and makes your eyes water.”
Clang the Cleric:: Technically, I don’t have lungs. I’m made of wood and stone.
DM: Yeah, I guess. The point is—
Brark the Barbarian: I still don’t have eyes. They can’t be watering.
DM: Right. I just mean—
Rhuul the Rogue:: As a revenant, I am undead. Technically, I don’t know if I need to breathe.
DM: OK, ok, I get it. There’s a mist that is burning the lungs of those of you with lungs and/or that breathe, irritating your eyes if you have eyes, and is generally unpleasant and mildly irritating to the rest of you. Let’s continue: “The hairs on your arms bristle with terror and your heart pounds as an anguished shriek cuts through the silence from within the tower. You can feel the palpable presence of evil.”
Pedritar the Paladin:: I can. They can’t.
DM: Who can’t what?
Pedritar the Paladin:: The rest of the party can’t Detect Evil. Only I can.
DM: It’s just a general presence of evil, not an actual specific evil.
Pedritar the Paladin:: Seems like only I would be able to feel it. It’s a class ability after all.
Clang the Cleric:: And I have no hair.
DM: Excuse me?
Clang the Cleric:: You said that the hairs on my arm stand up in terror. I’m hairless. Maybe I have some moss or something that stands up instead?
DM: Sounds good to me.
Rhuul the Rogue:: I’m not scared.
DM: What?!
Rhuul the Rogue:: Dude, I was once locked in a coffin with a vampire for a week. A little shrieking from some lich’s tower isn’t going to phase me. And also, I don’t know if my heart actually beats, so it couldn’t pound.
Clang the Cleric:: Yeah, I have no—
DM: Yes, I get it. Moving on. “On the door you see—”
Brark the Barbarian: I don’t—
DM: Yes, I get it. You have no eyes and cannot see. Let’s sum this up. “There is a tower in front of you.” What do you do?

This is quite entertaining, but it’s also mildly exasperating because I feel like it highlights exactly the wrong problems.

In the example, the problem is very clear: the GM is playing with a group of pedants who have no manners, zero impulse control, don’t understand the plural use of “you”, and are apparently unable to cope with the notion that at any point the entire game might not be primarily focused on their own precious character in particular. This is a fundamental mistake that no amount of GMing advice can overcome.

What the example shows us

Taking a less hard-line view, the problems showcased by the example are:

  • Sometimes, a subset of the group (consisting of more than one but less than all) should notice or be affected by something in the environment. If it’s everyone, no problem. If it’s one person, you can easily use their name.
  • It’s unwise to narrate a progression in space or time without giving players a chance to respond to the details, and especially to assume you can plan a series of events or observations that might be disrupted by player reactions.
  • Players and GMs can visualise events in different ways, because they make different assumptions or remember different details.
  • Players don’t always catch everything you’re saying (less charitably, players don’t always pay attention).
  • Players can get precious about, over-hype or misunderstand their class abilities.
  • Players may have ideas about what their character background can and should imply that the GM may not entirely share.

The article doesn’t really deal with, well, any of these, none of which are specific to boxed text. It also misses out on some of the other problems of boxed text, like assuming players will stand and watch something that nobody in their right mind would (be that boring nonsense or the king being assassinated), let alone a bunch of action heroes. What it seems to think is the problem with the boxed text example is that the text makes assumptions about “character feelings, movements and actions”, and while that’s true, I don’t think this is a great bad example of that; it assumes a certain amount of non-critical action, like ‘approaching the tower’, and otherwise makes general statements about the group as a whole perceiving certain things. It’s not unreasonable to state that a whole group “sees”, “feels” or even experiences an emotion as generic and primal as fear. The example doesn’t ascribe specific actions, past events or attitudes. There is no pulling of levers, nobody is forced to think or realise things their character shouldn’t, and nobody immediately trusts and likes the smarmy Larry Stu character. It doesn’t assume you already fought bandits X, have the crystal Y and intend to hunt down wizard Z.

That aside, the article has some interesting tips on writing “boxed text” that I broadly agree with. I think it’s inclined towards a minimalist writing style, whereas I think scenarios including some description that isn’t mechanically relevant can be useful, not just for helping convey a setting, but also in hinting at what else might be coming up soon or available to find. Leaving in “only those details about the environment that the PCs need to know about because they will have to interact with them” seems to assume you can accurately predict what the PCs want to interact with, which isn’t necessarily true. On the whole though, I think it’s a useful set of tips. And the example is quite funny. Go and read the post, if you haven't already.

Oh, while we’re nitpicking: if your party contains a dragonborn paladin, the edition is 4E. It’s just about possible that a 3rd edition party contains the grimlock and the warforged, but I don’t think it can be anything earlier. Moving on...

Issues with boxed text

I’d suggest the main narrative problems with boxed text are more like this (obviously all are “sometimes” issues):

  • It ascribes attitudes, intentions or beliefs to the PCs
  • It jars because of changes in tone
  • It turns into uninspiring fiction rather than useful or interesting information
  • It can focus player attention on trivia, leading them on red herrings if they assume these details must be important
  • It assumes the players will follow one particular course of action, including:
    • It narrates the PCs standing idly by while interesting events occur or interesting things are seen
    • It narrates the PCs not taking sensible precautions
    • It narrates the players taking actions that are not obvious, or even counterintuitive
    • Worse, it narrates the players taking actions that endanger them or their interests
    • At worst, it ascribes attitudes, intentions or beliefs to the PCs that are unlikely, and then narrates them acting on those in ways that are counter to their own interests

There are plenty of cases of boxed text demanding PCs walk into obvious traps, trust obvious traitors, ignore their class or racial abilities, or act in ways that require a particular moral code or mindset.

There are also practical issues in terms of organisation of information. Depending on how boxed text and GM information are arranged, either the GM may miss some crucial information because they don’t remember or notice a detail mentioned elsewhere, or the GM may (through confusion or by mistake) read out more information than the players should have at the time. However, this is by no means limited to cases where some text is in a box and some other text isn’t; it’s just unclear layout.

Personally, if I was writing boxed text (which I don’t) I’d have gone for something like this:

“Your trip through the Forest of Demise was uneventful. The chittering of forest animals and chirping of birds that serenaded you through the forest suddenly ends, as if the creatures of the natural world shun and fear this place. In the distance, you see a tower sticking out of the ground like an evil, twisted tree reaching up to the sky."

Pause for PC questions, reactions, withdrawals to prepare spells, spending three days camped out observering the tower and environs, performing divinations, sending Animal Messengers to allies to get information about the tower, laying traps for possible dangers, scouting around through other parts of the forest, looking for animal remains to discern the nature of the danger in the tower by analysing toothmarks, magically talking to rocks and trees, and so on.

If the PCs approach the tower:

"As you approach the tower, the crunching of the dead leaves under your feet seems almost deafening in the otherwise silent clearing. "

Pause for PC reactions to this unexpected noise, which clearly presents a threat. PCs may suggest that their character would in such circumstances be flying, using elven magic, sneaking or what-have-you, in which case determine the results accordingly.

"As you get within 20 feet of the tower, you realize the place is surrounded by a nearly invisible noxious vapor. As you breathe it in, its stench burns your lungs and makes your eyes water. "

Pause for reactions to vapour, including withdrawal to prepare anti-acid, anti-poison and anti-breathing spells, or exhaustive empirical tests involving a variety of summoned creatures, collecting and alchemising the air, and so on. Reassure players that it has no mechanical effect (at least at this point) and is just unpleasant.

"The hairs on your arms bristle with terror and your heart pounds as an anguished shriek cuts through the silence from within the tower. You can feel the palpable presence of evil.

If necessary, reassure players that this is a primal instinct rather than an emotion as such; heroes don’t not feel fear, they just stand up to it.

If they get in sight of the door:

"On the door to the tower you see four glowing runes.”

What I don’t think are genuine problems with boxed text at all are the complaints in the original example. We get it, grimlock – you have no eyes. But expecting the GM to, every single time they want to describe a feature of an area, either substitute the word “perceive” or say “see, except the grimlock, who probably hears it by echolocation or something, I dunno” would be preposterous. It would probably work out like this:

DM: “In the distance, you see a tower sticking out of—”
Brark the Barbarian: Nope.
DM: Nope what?
Brark the Barbarian: Nope I don’t see it. I’m a grimlock. Got no eyes.
DM: Okay. Everyone but Brark sees a tower. Brark falls down a hole he didn’t see because he has no eyes, and takes 4d6 damage.

In fact, grimlocks have Blindsight, which suggests that they do technically “see” – they just see without eyes.

Similarly, saying that the foul air makes eyes water and lungs sting is a reasonable descriptive shorthand, though given the number of non-living PCs it could maybe have been modified a bit. I’d also note that all of these points would apply exactly as much if the GM was improvising this content, rather than reading something out. If they are problems at all, they are, oh, GM problems, in terms of how information is presented? But see above re: pedants. There is a line between having your character's nature feel important by playing it up, and being a pain in the neck about it. Certainly, I don't think it's reasonable to expect a module designer to anticipate that you might have a cracktastic party with really unusual racial traits, when giving guidance on what an average party will see - that's true whether it's boxed or not.

We can reasonably assume that in all circumstances where it would make any sense (and as informed by the player’s previous actions) the stealthy characters are being stealthy, without having to explicitly acknowledge it. The dragonborn player was right to point out that their character is flying, because the GM won’t know that (it wouldn’t make sense to fly all the time because it’d be ridiculously hard work) but it isn’t in any sense a problem at this stage. The fact that the druid player is either taking the mick or paying no attention is not a problem with boxed text. The fact that the paladin player thinks nobody else should at any time feel a sense of evil* is not a problem with boxed text.

*There is a spell Detect Animals and Plants. This does not mean that only druids and rangers are capable of perceiving the existence of animals or plants.

This feels a bit weird, because I don't disagree with Shawn's conclusions and suggestions, and I quite enjoyed the post; I just think the problem and solution presented have very little to do with one another. He's providing a solution to a problem that exists but he didn't demonstrate.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

What do I look for in a rulebook?

So Shannon asked for opinions on rulebook contents, mostly on setting content, but it was way too late by the time she asked that. Okay, what do I look for in a rulebook? Some of this stuff I've been mulling over for a while and will probably expand on, but since you asked...

Disclaimer: this is entirely personal opinion, and what's useful is going to vary wildly between genres, game systems, groups with different playstyles, GMs of varying experience, cultures and whatnot.

Second, later disclaimer: this is (as so often) very long, and I basically wrote it stream-of-consciousness with minimal editing or indeed reviewing for making-any-damn-sense. You get what you pay for.

The basics

I like to see a quick and accessible overview, so I can tell what to expect in terms of content, genre, tone, setting and mechanics. About a page (two for small books) feels right. As little as possible of this should consist of self-congratulation, assertions of the game's Special-Snowflakehood or digs at other games. It could also be nice to have an even shorter overview that sums up the game: "D&D 3.5 is a fantasy adventure game, where a party of heroes or mercenaries seek adventure, riches, honour or just to do a bit of good, in a land of magic and monsters. It's designed for 2-6 players and a Game Master who manages the setting, antagonists and non-player characters. It has detailed mechanics and uses a d20 resolution system."

The "what is roleplaying" section can seem cheesy, especially given that many games really aren't likely to be played by anyone new to the hobby. But it can help to highlight which features of RPGs the designer wants to focus on.

Informationwise, I’d say the main issues are:

  • Things that you really need to know to play in the game
  • Enough general information to get a sense of how things work and the broad sweep of the game
  • Things that are unexpected or counterintuitive, particularly if they go against the grain of “common knowledge”. Obviously how important this is will depend on the game. In a historical or semi-realistic setting, if you want to stick to the facts, this is quite important.
  • Any bits of fine detail that will enrich the game, make it more interesting and offer fun play opportunities.
  • Enough pointers, hints and tantalising glimpses that the GM has some starting points for doing their own research or innovation.

Rules

Ideally, I want an intuitive character generation process, located at a point in the rulebook where you can expect to know basically what the choices mean, without having to constantly look things up in order to make sensible choices. I don't need every detail, but I do want a general understanding that (say) making a charming, graceful and very dim wizard in D&D is a completely terrible idea. When making a character, steps should be in an order that feels right in terms of creating a concept as well as making mechanical sense. Cross-references to more detailed parts of the rulebook.

Before I move on: cross-references wherever they might be useful. If you decide to spread the rules for character attributes arbitrarily across several books (I'm looking at you, AD&D) then you should damn well include something explaining that your caffeine resistance percentage can be found under the "weapon maintenance" chapter while your blood type is under "health care".

Also: put the chapter titles and numbers prominently on every page so I can tell where I am, rather than referring to chapter numbers but never telling you what chapter you're currently in. If possible, use the trick with a mark on the side of the page that moves down (like a set of tabs) for easy flipping.

You know what, just go and read this post and don't do basically any of those things.

Have a quick reference section for easy access to tables and stuff if they're needed, even if it means duplicating information from elsewhere.

Back to the point...

Rules need to be presented in some compromise between order of importance and dependence, so that the stuff you really need comes early in an order that makes sense, and things that are optional, occasional or can be improvved if the GM forgets the rule are shuffled off a bit into later pages (see also cross-references). Sidebars are fine, but easy to overdo. Make sure sidebars are obviously sidebars. Make sure "helpful voice" sidebars are obviously distinct from rule sidebars. It's basically impossible to create a perfect arrangement of rules, but there are many bad options.

An equipment section mostly covering things I am likely to use at some point, though sample objects for guidance in the long tail of things players will come up with are also good. Some suggestions for guessing costs of other things can be nice. In Shannon's case, there's the advantage of historical exchange rates to use, though these need to be used with caution as the relative costs of different things can change; at one time a calculator cost as much as a holiday, but this no longer the case. Some hints on this could be useful.

Oh, another thing is potentially types of NPC you might run into, and what they do. Just a two-line entry is enough to give a hint, but this can offer ideas you'd never have thought of, both in terms of interesting careers ("travelling sheet-music salesman" is my new favourite from YSDC) and plot-relevant activities. They can also be borrowed for PC ideas.

Creatures

Creatures, now... Let's start with a few basics just for pointers.

  • Include at least one creature of every major game-mechanical type. If you have Minions, Hordes, Monsters and Overlords, we need at least one of each. The more variable a creature type is in how it plays, the more examples are useful. If Hordes have basically the same sets of abilities, whereas Overlords can vary wildly from small children with immense psychic powers to sentient teleporting cars, we need more Overlord examples.
  • The more common a creature type is, the more examples are useful as long as they are meaningfully different. There's no point offering five full examples if Goblins, Kobolds, Gnomes, Pixies and Imps are 99% identical, you can just include a line saying "use these stats for..." and maybe a note on the one difference. But if crazed elementals are supposed to be the most common creatures you'll deal with, include lots of crazed elemental examples.
  • Include some examples of vanilla creatures, without weird abilities beyond the usual. This allows GMs a starting point in understanding balance and creature construction, without having to understand and strip away an unusual ability that completely changes the power and playstyle of a creature. It's really hard to work out how useful some odd abilities are, and so to decide what to replace them with.
  • The more esoteric creatures' abilities are supposed to be, the more examples you're likely to want, because coming up with ideas that are interesting, actually work out in play, and aren't massively unbalanced is hard work. In contrast, if creatures have exactly one stat and no special abilities, that ain't hard.
  • Include at least one creature of each distinct power level, for reference and sanity-checking (in the management consultant sense, not the Call of Cthulhu sense).

For what it’s worth, I prefer a creature compendium to offer enough examples that I feel like I’m seeing slices of a coherent world, with obvious links or similarities between some creatures, predator-prey relationships between others, and patterns emerging. One of the issues I had with Numenera was that on my quick glance through, the creatures all just seemed to be isolated entities completely distinct from one another. In contrast, D&D is a bit more careful to establish (for example) relationships between goblins, orcs, wargs and ogres, or different types of dragons. Of course, Numenera is a more unique setting; but that’s precisely the problem faced by less generic settings, of firmly establishing their ‘ecology’ in the minds of the players. They don’t necessarily have to be an ecology as such, but some kind of consistency and coherence is nice for getting a sense of the world. That being said, some systems (superheroes, for example) are far more suited to unique creatures with completely different abilities.

The amount of advice needed will also depend on the system in use. I think it’s a reasonable plan to present a sample creature or two and explain what its abilities imply, both mechanically and in terms of presentation.

Another point maybe worth highlighting is if the mechanical consequences of an ability aren’t immediately obvious. Something that buffs its allies can exponentially raise the danger of an encounter; a fear aura that sends players fleeing can be unexpectedly dangerous if they’re trapped or trying to stay hidden; a creature that can become invisible can be a real pain even if it’s not that threatening because it’s hard to escape or destroy; abilities that reduce key player stats can make the rest of a scenario unexpectedly difficult; immunity to certain effects can be a real problem if that’s all the players have; and so on.

Expanding on the last point: D&D is prone to this problem, especially in its CRPG incarnations. Creatures immune to non-magical weapons, and trolls needing fire or acid to finish off, crop up earlier than in P&P and in numbers that are frankly ludicrous. Right now I’m replaying Icewind Dale, in which my 5/6th-level party have just hacked their way through somewhere around fifty wights and a couple of dozen trolls. There are a mere handful of fire vials around, otherwise you’re stuck to what the wizard can do, which is usually kill three trolls per night’s sleep, nowhere near useful when you’re fighting ten at a time. Fire arrows technically solve the problem, but actually don’t, because even unconscious trolls get a saving throw against the fire damage and usually pass! That’s poor implementation, but you get the point.

Similarly, the wights are immune to mundane weapons, which immediately makes the ranged half of the party useless as you don’t have more than a handful of magical ammunition at this point. If you picked the right weapon specialisations (mace, hammer and large sword), you’ll have a few characters able to use what you’ve looted. If you happened to pick spear, flail and greatsword for your fighters, you’re dead.

The point here isn't to moan - although I appreciate the soapbox - but that mechanics traps aren't always obvious. Try to make sure that the GM will be aware if something can make it physically impossible for the players to complete a scenario.

If the system is simple, then you can probably get away with simple advice on how many ‘points’ to spend on a creature. If it involves complex special abilities, you need some discussion of how they interact with the basic stats to determine a creature’s power level. If there are distinct classes of creature in the game, you want some advice on how to make new creations feel like they fit in where they should – as well as on how to avoid blurring the boundaries and compromising those distinctions. It’s also worth considering who the book is aimed at, because new GMs will want more support in creating new creatures than experienced ones, while experienced GMs may need more warning if their expectations from other games are likely to mislead them. On the whole, I’d suggest offering an example of building a creature from scratch to fill a particular niche; possibly one simple creature and one with more complex abilities. Hints on reskinning creatures and powers are also useful.

Another thing to bear in mind is to tell the GM what the designer was thinking when they set about creating creatures. Is the most important thing to find a novel set of abilities, and then flesh it out with fluff (arguably, D&D 3.5? Is the mechanical role and abilities of the creature (4E)? Are you trying to model existing entities from fiction or folklore, or more broadly, to evoke particular impressions rather than worrying about mechanics? Do you devise creatures to fulfil a narrative end more than a tone or mechanical one? Do you start out from "in this genre, X and Y happens, so we want a creature that will do X and let the PCs do Y"? While GMs may not want to take exactly the same tack, understanding what the designer thought was important can be a big help in creating satisfying creatures.

Advice

Advice for GMs

Tell the GM what their job is. How do they fit into a satisfying session of Game? How does their role contrast with and complement the players? What (broadly speaking) are they trying to achieve - what does it mean to be a "good" GM in this game? What should they watch out for in general? Are there any specific snares or misunderstandings they should beware of?

If they actively work against the PCs, how much should they push, and when should they stop? Are they supposed to work against the players as well? Are players supposed to be always unified, in direct competition, antagonists, or what? How can, should and shouldn't the GM support this playstyle?

What are the most crucial rules, both mechanically and in terms of play structure? For example, there may be strict rules governing the way players take turns, when suggestions can be made, or when you can use Astral Knowledge to influence your Flashbacks (only before rolling) and to change the terms of a Contest (after both players commit, but before consequences are revealed). Structural rules may seem like they can be handwaved, but it could be that this sabotages the play experience for reasons that aren't immediately apparent. Some rules are easily overlooked by people working things out as they go along, but can come back to bite you at the end when you realise you missed them - make sure to highlight these ("You weren't tallying the 1s you rolled? Well, pants.").

Include examples; preferably get someone else who's never played it to indicate where examples are needed, and someone who has played it and misunderstood it to do the same. Examples should be no more complicated than they need to be; it's unhelpful if they introduce several new ideas at once, or when it's not clear which of the six situations involved is the deciding factor. Examples are good for showing what rules counter, stack or overrule each other, but only if each case is clearly explained. Examples like "because the centaur is Frozen, Incompetent, has the high ground, charged, doesn't have a melee weapon and is coming to terms with the loss of his hedgehog, he can't Manoeuvre and rolls three dice for Grappling" are rarely helpful unless you already clearly explained each of those points.

Actual Play is great. Really great. New games can't usually offer game recordings, but authentic game text in a rulebook is very helpful. It helps to illustrate not only how rules work, but also how the game is expected to flow. Perhaps most usefully, it helps to show (in no particular order):

  • when, how and why the GM makes particular rulings
  • when, how and why the players take particular actions
  • how the GM responds to those actions
  • how often dice are rolled, abilities are called in, and in general the balance of mechanical versus freeform play
  • how players interact with each other, both socially and mechanically
  • how the players and GM invoke the rules to achieve particular things, and which way round that goes
  • which rules and mechanics are common and important, which isn't always what you expect

If the GM is supposed to use characters against themselves, by calling in Phobias, Weaknesses and so on, give them a hint as to how much and how often they should do this to achieve the result you want. Groups will have their own preferences, but it's nice to have a rough idea. It can also be important mechanically, or a major tool for sharing control of the plot direction, and in that case misunderstanding the designer's intention may seriously affect how the game plays, and indeed how good it seems.

If you have an important mechanic that is unusual or counter-intuitive, spend as much time as you can drilling it into the GM's head. Give them rule examples. Give them multiple in-play examples. Highlight the rule and how it can be used in the introductory scenarios. This will help avoid them completely flubbing the rule and then thinking your game is a bit pants.

Make sure your introductory scenario is a good introductory scenario. This is emphatically not the same as being a good scenario. In some cases they might even be incompatible goals. More on this later.

Specific advice for introductory play is helpful. Point them towards ways to help players learn the game. Encourage them to give leeway where it's needed, while highlighting which rules they should stick to firmly to avoid sabotaging their game. Suggest some general options for recovering a scenario if things go badly wrong, so that you end up in at least the right genre.

Advice for Players

Some of this can fall under general introductory stuff, but make it clear what the game expects players are trying to achieve, both in-character (serve the Queen? make a living? make a name for yourselves? show them all, the fools? endure eternity as painlessly as possible? shape the cosmos to your whim?) and OOC (gain XP and levels? see cool new stuff? fight for narrative control? get the most Angst points? create slapstick hilarity? mimic a particular genre?) and how these goals are related. In some genres, IC and OOC goals tend to be opposed: horror is often one of these, but action-adventure can also inclined that way. Consider whether it's necessary to suggest suitable and unsuitable PC goals that work well with your IC/OOC balance. Not all games have strong expectations about what the PCs' in-character goals are, but they tend to have assumed limits on what they aren't.

It may also be worth mentioning the default assumptions about group dynamics, and about how the players and GM interact. Are the players fending off trouble created by the GM, actively seeking out interesting challenges (or things to do that will involve challenges), or do they devise their own troubles for the group? If there are rules for things like causing yourself trouble in exchange for later benefit, mention briefly how much and how often you expect players to do this. If there are abilities that players "call in" (such as Traits in Mouse Guard), drop a hint as to whether you expect them to do this as much as humanly possible, whenever it's obviously reasonable, or on rare and special occasions.

Reassure them. If they don't need to sweat the small stuff, tell them so. If their choice of abilities is significant but they can't screw themselves by Doing Chargen Wrong, point this out. If there are simple guidelines they can follow in most situations that should make things work out satisfactorily, point that out. If a lot of the rules don't see use in low-level play, say so. These things won't always be true! For example, some games rely on the players understanding and using a list of abilities, trying to argue the case for various Traits to be relevant, and so on. The GM should help new players with such things, and allow them leeway, but the GM may not know them either; in particular, they don't usually have a copy of everyone's abilities to look at.

Setting information

Oh hey, it's the bit Shannon actually asked about! Finally! Sorry Shannon...

Broadly speaking, I think the most important considerations for deciding how much setting to give are:

  • Whether the setting is familiar to players
  • Whether the setting is generic or specific
  • Whether the game aims for realism

Familiarity

A familiar setting generally calls for less general background. You don't need to explain how people obtain objects or support themselves in a modern-day developed country, even if it's one your players haven't been to. Familiar systems of government, law enforcement and education can often be skipped entirely. Even fantastical settings that are generic can be skimmed over: a fantasy game can drop in a few sentences about the King, the College of Wizards, the Knights of the Silver Spear and the court of scheming nobles who form the government, and most players can extrapolate comfortably.

Whether they're real or not, settings that are substantially different from what players know require explanation. This may be a wholesale issue: life under a system of tribal elders, ruling wizards or benevolent alien domination is hard to imagine in detail, while everyday life for vikings was rather different from the pillaging stuff everyone knows about. It can also be specific details: mediaeval fantasy is one thing, but very few people have a solid idea of what mediaeval life was actually like day-to-day, or even what "mediaeval" actually entails in terms of culture, technology and society. Coming back to the modern day, while some things can be assumed, the audience for an English-language RPG probably aren't that familiar with life in Turkey, Ghana, Nunavut, a croft in the Orkneys or various remote and far-flung parts of their own country. A game may also be set in social circles that they don't normally frequent, be that the military, a Cree reservation, Buckingham Palace, a boarding school, a crime-ridden estate or a football fan club. Obviously there are gamers from... I'm going to say, most of those backgrounds (I can't see the Windsors gaming, honestly) but they're only a small proportion of the audience, and a game can't assume you have intimate knowledge of those environments.

If your setting is completely made up from whole cloth, you have a ton of work on your hands. I'm still waiting to read the Numenera book I took off Arthur's hands, hoping to make sense of the setting, because I couldn't during the game. If you can't rely on existing expectations and assumptions, everything needs describing. What is the technology level? Is there magic, and what does "magic" mean? What types of creatures exist? What is society like? What's the PCs' place in society? What's the legal system like? What are the cultures like? How much do people travel, and how? How equal is society, and how does inequality manifest itself? How dangerous is life, and how much does anyone care? What are the most significant influences on society: arts, technology, religion, magic, war, money? Where do the lines fall in the setting that are important to establishing genre - for example, the lines between "vicious thug", "heroic warrior" and "physical humour", or between "completely normal behaviour", "distasteful attitudes" and "criminal offensiveness"? Is tampering with the Spellwall a prank that'll get you a night in the cells, an act of undescribable lunacy, or a capital offence endangering everyone? What do distances mean in practice? How much freedom, chaos and unpredictability is there? How much wilderness (or equivalent) versus urban sprawl versus tightly-organised city-state is there, and which are the expected play environments?

Genericity

A generic setting (that is, a setting designed to be generic) tends to call for a lot less detail. One reason is that it benefits from familiarity - a generic setting is pretty much by definition one that players should be familiar with, or at least most of the group probably are, otherwise why did you decide to play it? As such it offers the chance to incorporate whatever elements are wanted from that genre, and ignore others. The other reason is that too much detail can constrain GMs as well as inspiring them, depending where you put it. It's a good idea to give some detail of at least one major location of each main type, a few sample NPCs to help illustrate the kind of characters you expect to fill the world, and some possible issues that PCs might deal with (perhaps tied into those locations or NPCs). If guilds, nations or companies are important to the setting, examples of those are also sensible.

A specific setting has a lot in common with the Whole Cloth point above, but can be real as well as fictional. A game set in Genericville in the Modern Day is very different from one set in Ashby-de-la-Zouche in 1994. The more specific a game is, the more detail you tend to need to illustrate and use. The GM is more likely to care - and to be asked - about specific points, especially if the game is relatively static and so consistency is important. While the details themselves don't necessarily matter, you don't want to paint yourself into a corner by offering the PCs elevation to the nobility when the nobles' descent from a powerful sorcerer is both a diamond-hard law of the setting (they maintain the Spellwall as the price of their titles) and a plot point vital to the campaign that doesn't allow you to secretly give the PCs sorcerous descent (his evil ghost starts taking control of them in the climax of the metaplot).

Moving back into fantastical settings, if Our Elves Are Different then you need to explain how, and possibly why. If there are astrological rules governing when magic can be cast, or common mythological tropes don't hold true, those are important. In a sci-fi setting, there's a big difference between settings with and without warp and time travel, and even between incarnations of those technologies. It matters whether your robots are basically humanoid machines, Asimovian Three Law models, or sentient artificial beings with independent moral codes, because those will affect how they behave and how players interact with them.

Realism

Finally, realism. This isn't just restricted to real settings, though those can encourage a thirst for details. Is there a bank in the south part of town that opens after 5pm? Can you carry a shotgun in this state, and what licence do you need; can foreigners get one; how long does it take? If a major fire erupts in the town hall, is it near anything that'll cause huge problems, like a fuel dump or hospital? How likely is it that speaking Welsh is a safe way to have a discreet conversation in a pub, and also won't get you punched in the face? Did the HMS Murderiser even have coal-fired engines whose ashes you can use to melt ice on the deck, or were that class all oil-powered by 1946? Which side does the driver sit? You don't necessarily actually need to know that stuff to play, but people often care. Even in fictional towns, there are questions about the plausibility of various political and social systems, how the economy works, and so on.

Sci-fi realism is a common problem that just does call for handwaving, so here the question is what gets handwaved, especially if the rest of the game is relatively hard science. Are there space bandits, even though it makes no sense? Does time-travel move you in space and adjust your velocity so you don't end up suffocating in a vacuum or flying through a wall?

A game that tries to evoke a setting without insisting on realism doesn't necessarily have an easier time, but does call for less detail.

Okay, taking a step back... in general I would say offer at least one example of (in Shannon's case) paranormal society, relic and strange place, so that GMs have something to draw on to see how it's actually done. As with creatures, it helps to include some information on the choices made in designing them, and how those achieve the goal of the design. The more important each element is in your setting, the more examples are likely to be useful. If interacting with a whole set of paranormal societies is crucial to the game, we need a lot.

Tool kits can mean all kinds of things, and here I'm not entirely sure what Shannon's getting at. I certainly think brain-prompting tools are useful, things that prompt you to make the right kinds of decisions as part of creating your new thing. Templates can be useful, especially for very common or significant elements, and where precise adherence to mechanics is important. In general, though, I feel like prompts and rule-of-thumb guides are the most immediately useful once you have an example or two to look at. For example: "Consider WHY the antagonist is here, their MAJOR GOAL, their MORAL OUTLOOK, and their likely ATTITUDE to your PCs in particular, before determining abilities" and "as a rule of thumb, one Fate will make for a decent encounter, three Fates is suited to a major conflict and the end of an arc, and five Fates offers a drawn-out conclusion to a campaign, perhaps split over several locations or meetings". Or "combining abilities from more than two Talent pools is not recommended, as the NPC may be unexpectedly weak or strong due to Talent synergies".

As I think I mentioned earlier, a quick (and dirty, if it's simpler) guide to reskinning non-useful content is also good. Can't use the Brotherhood of the Rat, who specialise in summoning ghosts to assassinate political leaders? Well, the Onyx Guild summon elementals to rob banks.


Okay, that's a lot of writing and I'm tired now. Hope it's at least vaguely helpful!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Monitors: lingering injuries

The injury model I've been using is intended only to cover individual scenes. A character either stays standing throughout an incident or goes down. However, that doesn't allow much in the way of interesting injuries, poisons, illnesses, psychic influences and so on. A similar argument can be made in the other direction, i.e. enduring benefits.

While that kind of thing can certainly be ruled by a GM, I might as well offer some basic suggestions for integrating these sorts of effects. I would recommend they be used sparsely when the narrative calls for it, rather than for every piddling combat. One use is for incidents that would (in other systems) tend to be crippling - falling off large cliffs, falling into chemical tanks and so on. The other one I'm considering is using them as a possible consequence of going unconscious in combat from loss of Wounds. In this case, lingering effects would be one of several possible consequences, alongside things like being captured, narrative issues like losing time in a case, loss of possessions, and (if it seems a better option) no additional consequences.

Rules

A lingering effect remains in effect until it is treated suitably, or enough time passes for the character to recover. Any number of effects can be created, but some examples are given for reference:

  • Sprained ankle: the character's Speed is reduced by one rank.
  • Dislocated shoulder: the character cannot use the arm to lift objects (including using weapons) or apply force.
  • Hand injury: the character cannot use the hand to manipulate objects, but can use the arm itself to heft objects or exert force.
  • Weakened: the character feels weak and unsteady, and suffers a -2 penalty on most physical checks, or -5 on Strength or Endurance checks.
  • Feverish: the character is light-headed, mildly delirious or otherwise unable to focus. They suffer a -2 penalty on checks where reason and focus are important, or -5 on Will checks.
  • Stumbling: the character is exhausted, drunk, or otherwise unable to control their movements. They suffer a -2 penalty whenever coordination is important, or -5 on Agility checks.
  • Mindshadow: the character is under a malevolent psychic influence. During turn-based play, roll 1d20 each turn; on a 1 the character must spend one action fighting off the influence. In turnless segments the GM should allocate effects however seems appropriate.
  • Blood loss: the character is hurt and vulnerable after a previous incident. They keep their first Wound box ticked until they recover.

Since it's relevant here: in general, a -5 penalty applies to one-handed attempts at tasks that would normally require two (this was previously mentioned in terms of using rifles and such one-handed). Some tasks, such as climbing ropes, are nearly impossible one-handed and suffer a -10 modifier. A few tasks will be actually impossible unless you come up with a really good plan to compensate.

Lingering effects might also escalate, particularly poisons or diseases, so the penalty increases over time. For example, a mission dealing with an alien plague might feature worsening disease conditions. In these cases I'd want to ensure either that they are quite rare (being more of a plot device/unusual scenario feature) or that there are means in place to alleviate the effects.

More unusual lingering effects might cause hallucinations, memory loss and so on. I’d recommend avoiding things like broken limbs unless the characters are in a situation where they have a lot of downtime or where really good medical facilities are available to fix them rapidly. Cinematic healing is one thing, but broken legs don’t go away in a few hours and it’ll just get silly.

Recovery time and Regeneration

I don't want to provide fixed durations for anything, because the pace of a game can vary wildly. Realism aside, having a week-long injury in a fast-paced alien hunt will be no fun, while having a two-hour injury during a drawn-out exploratory trip through alien jungle is basically pointless.

Basically I think there are two main ways to handle this: arbitrary durations and penalty dice. I also think either one would work, and both could be combined without any particular problem, according to the situation.

Arbitrary durations use handwavey time to determine how long an effect lasts. Assign a number of intervals (I’ll call these ticks for now) and mark one or more off whenever the GM thinks it’s appropriate. Ticks will generally represent either actual time elapsed, spending time to recover (and giving up the chance to do other things), or screen time with the effect in play (which has allowed it to get some use). When the ticks are used up, the effect ends. Intervention or special abilities may modify the number of ticks.

A penalty dice system would, like the Blind Die, have an unpredictable duration. Here the GM would allocate a die based on how lingering they expect the effect to be, and have the player roll for recovery whenever it seems appropriate. On a 1 they shake off the effect. These are basically still using arbitrary durations, but have a random element added.

I would generally think that five or six ticks is the longest an injury-type effect should linger, because it’ll start to get annoying otherwise, especially as they will increase the chance of being knocked unconscious again. I don’t really want it to be a common occurrence for most of the team to be suffering lingering effects, or for anyone to carry several at once, although I’m fine with it as an interesting occasional feature or a deliberate plotting choice. So if a player deliberately pushes their luck and picks up a few conditions while tackling an urgent case, that’s okay. Similarly, if a scenario is based around a lingering influence I don’t mind that hanging on as long as necessary. As a starting point, I’m going to suggest that most lingering injuries last for 2d3 ticks.

As well as a penalty for player characters, the lingering effects rules could grant them benefits. They offer a way to model things like stimulants, preventative drugs, magical buffs and so on. Also, NPCs can take lingering effects as much as PCs, so an escaped antagonist can be left suffering a lingering effect from their earlier encounter if the PCs track them down quickly enough.

Regeneration

Salamanders, amongst others, have the Regeneration ability and can reduce the duration of lingering effects, or modify the die roll if one is required. The size of the ability affects how strongly this is modified; for Salamanders it is Regeneration 1, although I’m tempted to increase that as they seem a bit weak and it’s not a particularly major game mechanic. Some NPC races (specifically, aliens or heavily bionic creatures) may have even better regeneration.

Resistances

There may be some instances where a character has a relevant resistance, vulnerability or trait. In most cases these should be brought into play during the initial rolls to see whether the character suffers a lingering effect at all. However, the GM might also decide to treat these abilities like Regeneration for specific kinds of effects to increase (or decrease) the duration.

Example

Investigating a gang operating from a factory, Xerxes pushes his luck and crawls among some machinery to eavesdrop on an incriminating conversation. Though he gets the information he wants, the toxic fumes seep through the hankerchief he's using as a mask, and by the time he crawls back out he's suffering badly. He gains the Feverish effect for four ticks. Feeling ill, he hides out in an office (while some other PCs get screentime) and marks off a tick. Heading out, he has to take great care to evade security guards, and marks off another tick. The trip back to the office doesn’t take long enough to count, but there his buddy Doc Huatl sizes up the trouble and gets to work with antitoxins and respirator, which rapidly burn through the last two ticks. Unfortunately, while Xerxes was busy, the gang boss left the factory for parts unknown.

Wladimir the salamander ends up falling off a rooftop as he chases a tentacled thing from Axtris IV. When he wakes up, his leg is badly sprained. It'll take six ticks to recover. However, as a Salamander he can cross off one tick immediately.