Environment as Opposition

Friday, 23. July 2010

Typically when gaming there are 3 types of opposition that are rather commonly encountered. The first and most generic type is random hostile opponents that want something from the characters; typically money, murder or a combination of the both of them. The second type is plot line villains. These for whatever reason have grudges against the players and will go long ways to see them suffer and defeated they may or may not be working as background elements although they tend to last longer as the latter. Finally there is the simple antagonists. These fellows aren’t really villains per say but have differing objectives or want the players objective first in the case of say, theft. 

The fourth which is used far less commonly is the environment itself.   If anything the typical approach is to use a wide variety of traps to slow characters down while they’re trying to accomplish their goal.  This is rather limiting in itself however, as the entire area around the characters may be hostile or lethal within a short order.  This allows potentially weaker threats to be very dangerous by proper application.

For instance; setting fire to a building is a simple action nearly anyone can do.  In most cases flames are quite dangerous to normal characters (or if not, it’s not too difficult to find something that is.) and their goal will be to evacuate.  This could be potentially simple or in the case of a larger building quite hazardous.  In addition to smoke inhalation and heat slowing them down, they’ll be facing limited to no visibility as well as an unstable structure that could potentially (read that as will) collapse if they’re not quick about moving. The entire hazardous environment should be well played with lots of tension and make it something the players definitely do not want a repeat experience of.

The burning building is a fine example but can be easily expanded to any number of hazardous locales.  Swamps and marshes with their soft bottoms work well, as do freezing, electrified, poisoned, low oxygen environments and so forth. These are rather simple to work with as they are clearly dangerous.  The idea is to make it dangerous enough to add significant pressure on its own, without needing additional hostile enemies.

Even areas that aren’t immediately hazardous can be dangerous to the ill prepared.  Any sort of long distance travel through the wilderness can be a trek.  Food is not as easily gathered as it is typically imagined.  Lack of water can kill in a period of days, and while some areas are flooded with it, some are very rare.  Loss of supplies is a good way of adding pressure without attacking the characters directly.

When was the last time, and/or how have you used similar situations?

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Thoughts on experience systems

Monday, 19. July 2010

With practically any structured rpg there is going to be some sort of experience system. The experience system is going to define character growth; what the character gets better at and how much better. The system defines so much more than that however and should be built around the storytellers and players desired style of gaming.  If the storyteller wants the players to act more or in a certain fashion, they need to be rewarded for such and encouraged to do so.

The old traditional games based their experience around recovering treasure and some on thrashing monsters. The more loot recovered the better and the bigger and badder monsters thrashed the better, assuming one could escape with their hide intact. The impact on the play style of course, is that this was the main thing that mattered: scoring gold and thrashing villains. This is fabulous if a pure combat based game is being run, but several wanted something.. more.  Thus the systems evolved.

More modern systems have their experience basis on the above, but also include other factors.  Experience is given for good role playing, acting in character, completeting quest objectives, completing story arcs, surviving, good ideas, attendance and the list goes on.  In short, character actions are included and have a significant role in how players and their character gain experience.  It shifts the experience from a pure hunt to something more acting based.

Other games have more esoteric styles.  Supposed the desired objective of a game is double crossing, experience in given for such event setup.  Or perhaps alliance building or character romances.  Maybe the solving puzzles has a large factor.  The weighting of experience is going to determine the amount of effort put into each task.

How these are weighted and handled are setup on a baseline by the system being played for how the publishers want a game to “feel” and what demographic they’re trying to appeal to.   It is further tweaked by the storyteller to reflect the style of play they want.  Ideally a major focus (or 2) are chosen and the other factors weigh into a lesser fraction.  Depending on how much is chosen this can be a large task within itself, so its recommend making the players do some of the work.  Just a quick note on actions will do, it will also help direct the style of play in the desired direction.

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The lowly knife?

Wednesday, 14. July 2010

Often in RPG, the somewhat lesser weapons are assigned a rather low damage value (1d4 perhaps?) and not much further thought is given. Is this really the case, are we underestimating the amount of damage that can be inflicted by “lesser” weapons? Virtually all combat in a non fictitious sense really is really is potentially crippling or with lethal consequences. Lets examine the humble common knife or dagger.

Bladed weapons, swords in particular are a major part in nearly any of the old civilizations culture. Consider that edged weapons were only very recently supplanted by ballistics as the weapon of choice (~1700s) on the battlefield. This is a veritable wink in the existence of mankind. Up until this time edges of any sort were the preferred method of eliminating ones foes.  This is due to the brutal and cold efficiency of such weapon and certainly deserves further examination.

For starters knives pierce or sever depending on how they are used. In the process anything in the way gets cut: Muscle, Nerves, Arteries, Veins and bone all get separated. In the worse case, this can result in instant or near instant death in the case of the central nervous system. Any sort of hit to a major artery can cause unconsciousness in a few minutes (or far less depending on what was hit.) and death shortly after without assistance. Damage to nerves will paralyze any part of the limb that is past any affected nerves. Damaged musculature is considerably less useful even with just a slight cut. As one can see the results are plainly put, devastating on a well aimed cut or thrust. Even in the case of a lesser wound, the target is now bleeding. The wound channel knives open is considerably large in the amount of surface area and in the case of a well sharpened blade difficult to close. These factors combined with the high maneuverability of the weapon means that most martial arts who are familiar with such weaponry would often prefer to deal with a gun in close quarters instead of a knife in competent hands.

The real world answer to such combat is go somewhere else (de-escalation or evasion is the best bet,) arm oneself with another, perferably longer weapon or if one can not do that to prepare to get cut.  Fights rarely go as cleanly as they do in the movies and are typically short and brutal.  Part of the long fights in movies is due to entertainment value,  a brief engagement is boring even though it may be accurate.  Another factor I’d consider however is the psychological blocking of the danger of such common weapons. 

I realize the explanation is that  other weapons are more lethal, but dead is dead.  Any sort of weapon in an engagement deserves respect.  Thoughts?

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Building Ambiance

Saturday, 10. July 2010

All places have an associated feeling when one thinks of them, comprised of all 5 of our senses. While modernly we rely primarily on sight and sound for our communications; smell, touch and taste all have an important role in defining our thoughts of a place. For any action taken in that environ this can either be disruptive, neutral or engaging. The term for such is ambiance although perhaps it will be useful to take a look at what Mirriam Websters has to say about it.

Main Entry: am·bi·ence
Variant(s): or am·bi·ance \ˈam-bē-ən(t)s, ˈäm-bē-än(t)s\
Function: noun
Etymology: French ambiance, from ambiant ambient
Date: 1889
: a feeling or mood associated with a particular place, person, or thing : atmosphere

Ideally we want an environment that is either neutral or engaging for gaming purposes. Assuming you’ve read my earlier writing on a good gaming environment the your environment will hopefully be at least neutral. To push it to the point of engaging however, requires a bit more work. The easiest senses to work with in this case are sight, sound and smell, although the others can be involved as well. Engaging requires attempting to simulate the environment the characters are in, even in a small fashion. The brains of the players will respond in kind to the attempt, and make envisioning such a seen that much easier.

Read more

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RPtools

Wednesday, 7. July 2010

I’m always looking for tools to enhance gaming, or to simply make life easier and allow for more time to do what I enjoy. Even better if the tools in question are open source or freeware.

RPtools are a set of well designed loosely defined tools which can do most tiresome functions. The more common games are well laid out and tuned, but the more esoteric ones require some code tweaking. The 2 released tools handle mapping and initiative, but there are several others in development that do tokens, characters and dice. Go look!

RPtools

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Smooth Game Flow

Monday, 21. June 2010

One of the more important tasks in keeping running a role playing game is keeping it flowing smoothly.  Any entertainment or fun that might have been had can be quickly quashed through a long delay looking for information or just as bad: looking for a rule for a given situation.  Therefore it is crucial that a storyteller stay organized, knowledgeable of the rules and lastly; flexible enough with them to improvise as needed.

Organization is something that was previously mentioned, but takes on a new life again when keeping a game flowing smoothly.  No one wants to wait around while a storyteller looks for maps, characters or other game information.  It is therefore quite helpful to keep information segregated into some sort of 3 ring binder, or file folder or some sort of digital storage.  I prefer the former, as when properly setup it’s easier to locate and remove items as needed.  Folders tend not to have the necessary organization unless they are huge.  Digital storage is also somewhat of an issue as it can take time to locate the necessary information while looking at a computer.

Knowledge of the standard rules of game play is also quite important for a storyteller.  With most games, there is a standard way of doing “normal” game actions such as combat, movement, skill tests and the like.  Normal is quoted because game actions are rarely normal in a real life sense.  In any case, knowing how these actions are run is essentially standard operating procedure with how a game functions.  Beginning storytellers are cut a lot of slack here, because nobody wants to chase them off.   However, by the same token not knowing them after a certain time period is like going to a cashier that doesn’t know how to do their job. Infuriating!

Lastly, it is quite important to still be flexible with the rules in terms of game play.  Some rule sets are cumbersome, and make governmental bureaucracy look efficient.  Spending too much time looking for an obscure rule or clause for something that should be an easy call kills the inertia of play.  There is a certain level of gut check that is involved.  If the rules are ambiguous, simplify in a fair fashion and resolve them quickly.  Playing too fast and loose with the rules however, is not advised unless players are obviously forewarned ahead of time.  Players can spend a good amount of time looking at rules and expect their characters to perform to a certain standard.  Brutally quashing this, while necessary from time to time is very disheartening and bad for morale when done on a regular basis.

By keeping organized, knowing ones rule set, and being flexible enough not to be chained to the rules a storyteller can greatly improve game play and flow.  Moments of inertia and excitement can be preserved going into the next scene or fight.  The overall results can be a much more dramatic game, not to mention less stressful in the long run for a good storyteller.

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The Backup Plan

Friday, 4. June 2010

One of the benefits of having good players is that they’ll often come up with outside the box solutions to problems thrown at them, sidestepping them or defeating them utterly. Perhaps they’ll deem whatever the storyteller thinks they need to do isn’t what they need to be doing, and head down some other road entirely. Whatever the case may be, the storytellers plan for the gaming session is now in tatters, and they’re now operating in seat of pants mode. Thus lies importance in having a backup plan.

Plan A may be whats driving the story at the moment, but at best it’s a general guideline of whats going in the gaming world at the moment. Think of it as backstory, and something the players may or may not be involved with, despite what ahem “leverage” might be applied to keep them there. One might think of it as a large, overlapping circle, with many others connected to it by it’s happenings.

Continuing along with this train of thought, a storyteller should have general ideas penned out in their head. However what’s really going to pay dividends is any detail to the areas the players pass through, and the characters they interact with. Knowing the feeling of an area is important in describing it for certain, but that same feeling also puts it into conflict with other areas, and characters. Likewise, knowing who major characters are and how and who they interact with allows a storyteller to easily come up with what they might be doing, at any time of the day. It’s more time consuming in general, but what ends up happening is a feeling for an area is developed, the story essentially writes itself from that point on as all the storyteller needs to do is “thread the needle” per say through material that already exists.

By having such material on hand, the storyteller alleviates having to completely wing it when telling a story that takes an unexpected turn. In addition, such story is likely to be much more well developed as the supporting elements are already established. Lastly, the players can easily see their effects as areas change, rather than just simply points of the story.

Keep your notes on characters and environments, and things will go far more smoothly for you.

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Storyteller readiness

Thursday, 20. May 2010

As mentioned previously, the storyteller or equivalent that is running your game has a tremendous task to undertake. There is usually a main storyline or theme they want the players to somewhat follow, but they also need to be able to deal with any “veers in the road” the main characters might take. Some are much better able to deal with improvisation than others. Fortunately, that’s merely a bonus and not a requirement. There are a couple of things a storyteller can do to make their task easier, however good at winging it they might be.

First, it is to have a good idea of where your characters are going to be headed. The main storyline or theme is key in this, and in their travels. The storyline needs to be well enough developed to where you can see where the characters are headed a least a couple of gaming sessions into the future. This forces you to develop your non player character and story depth, and helps anticipate any “leaps” around obstacles players might take. It also gives you a pretty good idea of what the players are actually up against, and what resources your antagonists will be able to levy against them.

The next major point to work on would be to develop some side storylines you anticipate that the characters may or may not take. Typically side storylines relate around character development and advancement, but can also be opportunities the characters make take on their journey. For instance, if your characters are in hunters in the pursuit of a vampire; what ones would pass up the opportunity ease the suffering of a diseased town, or assist in the destruction of a werewolf along the way. Perhaps the characters decide a priests help would be very useful; but in order for the characters to get this assistance, they need to help the priest first. Another opportunity might be the characters wishing to further the training before engaging such a great enemy. Whatever the case, it is prudent to be prepared for logical veers in the path the characters may take along the way.

Characters tend to span large areas in their adventure, but in most cases at least they’re somewhat localized to their goals. The more you can develop these areas the less you’ll have to come up with on the fly. Some suggestions would be a good description of the varying landscapes, local towns, castles, points of adventure (dungeons and the like), local events and happenings that may take place during the time they’re in the area. This is paramount the flow of both to the main storyline, but also the unexpected paths protagonists tend to take.

Right along with the areas of adventure, there is bound to be large numbers of additional characters the players will encounter. A good storyteller should also have notes on major characters the players are likely to encounter, as well as many minor ones as you can spare. Major NPC notes are crucial, as they will be referred upon constantly for combat, skills and otherwise. Minor ones typically need much less role playing on part of the story teller, but its still a good idea to have some sort of template or notes to give a general idea of that character in question.

These above notes will make the sometimes overwhelming task of being a storyteller much simpler. With more information available, the simpler it is to improvise dealing with players heading off in their own inspired directions. The less energy the storyteller expends on trivial matters, the more they’ll have to use on the truly important matters to the game and storyline.

In short the more organized the storyteller, the easier time they’ll have running a game.

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Who’s that storyteller?

Monday, 17. May 2010

Most modern games have a player than develops the story and the general world that the other characters exist in. This players name depends on the system, but among them are storyteller, game master (GM), dungeon master (DM) and referee. As one might imagine, the storyteller has a significant amount of work cut out for them no matter the game system. The job is part writer, part narrator, part actor, and significant amounts of improvisation. All of this needs to be done without being a direct enemy to the players, but rather an enabler of their actions.

A large portion of the job is writing. The storyteller needs to develop or at least apply a completely separate world for the characters to exist in. Often this is completely made up made up although sometimes historical world. The storyteller is also expected to develop plotlines and story arcs for the characters to follow within the given setting. This can encompass a vast number of situations but you can tie the majority to character advancement, exploration, romance, and combat.

The storyteller is also expected to play the role of the narrator. All the situations players encounter need to be animated as well as the path the characters take described. This includes the major elements; scenes, settings, combat, how characters are feeling. It also includes the more mundane. How long does it take to travel from a point to a point? Does anything important happen during the journey that needs to be explained, or can it be skipped to keep to the real meat of the storyline?

In addition to all of the above, the storyteller is expected to play the roles of any characters that the players aren’t handling. This is a very large portion of any game world. Any major characters the players encounter, as well as minor ones such as innkeepers, merchant, guards, courtesans and nearly anything you think of have to have their role rapidly assumed while playing the storyteller. It’s essentially as if you have many masks that are sitting next to you that you switch through characters as the players need information.

Furthermore, you have to be ready to improvise at the drop if a hat. Some storytellers are good at this, some are not so much. Players often do the unpredictable and wander off following their own completely unexpected directions. A good storyteller has to be able to improvise and deal with this until they have time in the future to plan on where the storyline is headed. This also has to be done without ramming the characters continually back onto the main path of the story. Obviously, this can generate story arcs in itself. If the characters are supposed to be somewhere to help someone and they’re not, they’re going to have to deal with the consequences sooner or later. Maybe they’ll need to rescue a character down the road. Player improvisation is something that is best treated as an opportunity, not a problem.

In short, the storytellers task is often a time consuming, difficult job. You have to provide the overall guide and direction to the players without being a direct enemy. The job is potentially the most rewarding; you see an entire world advance and develop as more and more time is spent within it. This is in addition to providing hours and hours of entertainment to a good group of people.

As a storyteller, you produce the setting and world the characters exist in, without being an antagonist.

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