Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Master of Illusion

GM's Guide

When the characters aren't doing anything, choose one of the following:

Threaten something they care about
Offer a clue to a mystery
Hint at a greater threat
Introduce immediate danger

When a character does something chancy, have the player roll a die, then choose one of the following:

They get what they want, but with a price
They don't get what they want, but they do get something else

If they rolled a 6, add:
They get exactly what they want
They get what they want, and something else as well

If they rolled a 1, add:
They don't get what they want, and now they're in even worse trouble
They get what they want, but it lands them in even worse trouble

When a character is seeking information, have the player roll a die, then choose one of the following:

They get a small clue, enough to lead them further
They get nothing about what they wanted, but they spot a different opportunity

If they rolled a 6, add:
They get a major break
They get nothing about what they wanted, but some other advantage instead.

If they rolled a 1, add:
They get stonewalled: Nothing
They get nothing, and they land themselves in trouble

In all cases, always:
Misdirect: Don't tell the players which option you chose from the lists. Pretend something in the fiction made it happen.
Make them Work for it: The more the character cares about something, the harder it is for them to get it.

Player's Handbook

Character Creation
Create a character which is a product of your unique artistic vision, and reflects what you desire from play
Make sure your character is compatible with the other characters in the group
Make a character which fits into the setting and story of the game to be played

Players, at all times:
Have your character act as you believe that character would, if they were a real person in those circumstances
Ensure your character is willing and able to follow clues provided by the GM
Speak for your character and have them only act on information available to the character
Express your character's unique personality, and try to "immerse" yourself in the game
Stick with the other characters, and don't fight with them too much
Do not question the Player's Handbook, or the GM

If anyone breaks any of the above rules, choose one of the following:
Accuse them of "metagaming" and make a scene
Complain to the GM that they are hogging the spotlight and being a primma donna
Put up with it, but sulk
Feel smugly superior, and look for a better group

If the player is a woman, add:
Tell them that girls don't understand roleplaying games
Explain to them in simple terms exactly what they did wrong

If you are the GM, add:
Have their character fail more often, until they learn how to do things right

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Modular Pre-gens

I wrote a Story-Games post about the Cold City game I ran at Day of Games, but I wanted to pull out here what I think is the stand-out technique that I used in that game, a technique for producing pre-generated characters, suitable for a convention game or a one-shot, that gives the players some choices about their characters. I think it helps make the players feel connected to their characters and to play them with more nuance and empathy.

I did this for a game of Cold City, but I think it'd work for any game where the characters have shifting agendas or motivations, and where revealing those in play is part of the fun.

I wrote four characters, each with a different national background and a different draw into the situation. By themselves, the characters were fairly stereotyped, straightforward archetypes. An American ex-diplomat, a Russian former soldier, a French Resistance fighter, and a German Bureaucrat.

I also wrote up four "secret agendas", representing a mission given to the character by the spy agency they work for, organisations like the CIA, Gehlen Org, and so on. Here's an example one:

Your Mission: There’s a Soviet mole in the RPA. Intercepted transmissions indicate that they’ve been assigned to this mission, but don’t give any clues to their identity. Find the Russian agent and eliminate them. You have a syringe of insulin which will kill someone without leaving any traces.
Answer now: How did you come to work for the CIA?
Answer during play: Are you willing to kill a colleague, and possibly a friend?
As well as the secret agendas, I wrote "personal motivations", individual motives for the characters, these were also randomly assigned. Here's an example:
You did something terrible during the war, something you can’t forget. Maybe this mission is your chance to redeem yourself, or maybe it’s where you finally meet your punishment.
Answer now: What terrible thing did you do?
Answer during play: What will it take for you to find absolution?
So you'll notice that in those examples there's a bit that says "answer now". After the players chose their characters, I randomly handed out the secret agendas and personal motivations. The players then had to work out how these three elements fit together into a whole person.

My hope was that building the character themselves, out of pre-generated pieces, the players would feel a little more ownership of the characters, and play them with a little more nuance. I've found that sometimes in convention games, players can play their characters as slavishly devoted to whatever cause or motivation they're given at the start of the game. For this game, as I think Cold City requires, I wanted the characters to have multiple conflicting goals. I think having the players work on their characters themselves helped them buy into the characters' goals, but also helped them see those goals as negotiable.

In play, it worked out pretty well. The players all reported feeling pretty connected to their character, and they enjoyed answering the questions before and during play. I was really happy with how that aspect of the game worked out.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Fiction

This is adapted from the introduction to a game I'm writing.

Imagine you’re watching a group of mimes, performing for you. There’s three or four of them, and they’re doing some ordinary thing, like cooking a meal or cleaning the house, except that all the things they interact with are imaginary. They’re very skilled. When one of them picks up a bucket full of water, we see him strain against its weight, even though we don’t see the bucket itself. He sets it down. Another mime picks it up. We still don’t see the bucket, it’s imaginary, but when the mime goes to pick it up, she picks it up from exactly where the last mime put it down. The mimes pass each other things, open and close doors, trip over objects someone else left lying on the floor, and so on. Even though all the things they interact with are imaginary and invisible, as we watch them we feel we can almost see the bucket, or the doorway, or whatever it is. The rigourous discipline of the mimes, treating every object as if it were real, remembering where things are, their weight, their size, creates the illusion of reality. That’s what makes the mime show compelling (and creepy).

In roleplaying games, we’re doing the same thing as those mimes, except that instead of acting out a scene ourselves, we talk about a scene, describing imaginary characters and things. We each take responsibility for describing the actions of an imaginary person, and talking about how they interact with the world around them. Just like the mimes, when one person describes putting something down, the other players can describe their character picking that thing up. The characters pass each other things, open and close doors, trip over things, and they also explore dungeons and fight monsters.

Just like the mimes, the illusion of reality is important. We know the things we describe aren’t real, but we treat them as if they are, in the game. The sword your character wields has a particular weight and length, the weather is a certain way. Your character dodges like so when the strange subterranean horror lurches in her direction. We remember these things, and they form part of the ongoing narrative of play. They take on an illusion of reality.

In roleplaying games, that narrative, the things we’ve said, the weight of your sword, the slavering fangs of the monster, is called the “fiction”.

The rules of the game will sometimes refer you to the fiction of play. They’ll ask you “what is happening now?” and say “when this happens, do this”. You’ll know what rules to use by looking to the fiction of the game. You make a decision about whether the rules apply, but you make that decision based on the things people have said and that everyone has agreed to. It's not the same as looking at a number someone rolled on a die, or the card they drew, or the position of a miniature on a map. But it's not the same as someone making an arbitrary ruling either. You make your decision based on maintaining that illusion of reality. Just like a mime can't walk through the imaginary wall they've created without shattering the illusion, when you look to the fiction in a roleplaying game, you're making a judgement that's constrained by that illusion of reality, the fiction.