Leverage: Points of drama

This weekend just gone was Admiral Frax’s birthday roleplaying party. Amongst many other great games, I ran Leverage, which uses the Cortex Plus system. Believe it or not, this was the first time I’d run or played in a game that uses Drama Points as a currency for making minor changes to the in-game situation (as opposed to allowing rerolls or other purely mechanical effects).

The idea of this mechanic is to allow players to have greater narrative control by enabling them to create minor dramatic elements (an object, an emotion, or some such). So you could declare that your character had a gun in his pocket, or found an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Or more significant stuff, like declaring that an NPC henchman is considering defecting. In the case of Leverage, they also enable the GM to introduce complications to existing situations – like having a character who is sneaking past one security guard suddenly notice there’s another one just coming around the corner. Drama Points can only be spent when particular game-mechanical triggers occur, so there are limits to when you can use them.

I was quite excited when I first read about the Drama Point mechanic described above, but after thinking about it and playing the game, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they encourage the players and GM to play creatively within the established situation. They allow unexpected things to happen which are beyond the power of any one person to control, and that has the potential to make the game more interesting to everyone. But. They seem like a bolt on when combined with a system with traditional player and GM roles.

For the players, they seem of very limited utility. Take the examples I gave above.
– The character who finds the gun in his pocket could easily have avoided paying a Drama Point by saying before they set out “I’m taking my gun with me”. So the Drama Point is either a penalty for bad planning (annoying) or a means to insert a gun into a situation where it couldn’t possibly come into play, such as when the players have been captured, thoroughly searched and locked in a cell (disbelief-creating). Otherwise they’re just a means to react to unexpected situations as though they weren’t unexpected.
– The character who finds an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Same thing, essentially. The character has simply short-cutted an unexpected situation (in this case, presumably, a lack of transportation). But they could presumably have used their in character skills to get hold of transportation, which I suspect would be more interesting than the rather unsatisfying bicycle ex machina.
– Declaring a henchman is considering defecting. This looks a bit more interesting at first glance – monkeying with minor NPCs in a GM-like way. But realistically, in most cases the character could probably persuade such a character to switch sides through a decent Persuade roll or similar. So in this case Drama Points are again short-cutting the need for your character to make some effort to come up with a cunning plan.
– In all three cases it seems to me the same effect could be got by the player saying to the GM “I brought my gun, ok?”; “I hunt through the bike racks to see if one isn’t locked” or “I’m going to try and work out if any of the henchmen are less than 100%”.

For the GM it’s even worse. In most games, the GM is pretty much free to insert new dramatic elements into a story if they choose. After all, if you’d written in your notes prior to the game that there were two security guards at the location rather than one, you wouldn’t need to spend a Drama Point to create a second one. And most GMs leave enough flexibility in their notes that adding an unplanned extra security guard really isn’t something you need a Drama Point to do. Of course, the presence of Drama Points does encourage the GM to throw in complications they hadn’t necessarily planned – but that may or may not be a good thing, depending on the situation. A good GM will judge these things rather than just following the mechanics.

Now I’m not against the idea of using mechanical systems to regulate the narrative power of players or GMs. But as the above examples hopefully show, Drama Points don’t actually do this – they just create a slight encouragement to and, in limited circumstances, increase in opportunities for, ad libbing. In the worst case they could actually restrain creativity, by blocking people from playing creatively when the supply of Drama Points dries up. I’m open to trying this mechanic a few more times, but on first inspection I’m somewhat underwhelmed.

A deadly game

In my ponderings around combat systems, I have realised something that somehow escaped my notice previously. Virtually every combat system I know of is designed with just one thing in mind: implacable foes beating seven shades of hell out of each other with the intention of killing their opponent.

Most systems give some consideration to unarmed combat, and usually to grappling too. Knocking an opponent out is covered perhaps 50% of the time, and is often accomplished by simply beating the target character with your fists until they run out of hit points and collapse. These options are usually significantly harder to achieve than a kill, which creates an incentive to resort to lethal force.

Capturing an opponent is usually not considered at all (beyond the grappling system), nor is the possibility that an opponent will decide discretion is the better part of valour and try to surrender or run away. Systems often include a mechanism for a character to exit melee, but that isn’t quite the same thing – and again, it’s often much harder to escape combat than it is to carry on fighting. Surrender and flight are generally left to the GM to decide on, with no guidance given and no mechanic for helping to decide when an opponent might decide to flee. All this alongside systems which are often ludicrously detailed about wounds and death.

Why does all this matter? Well, the result of this bias towards lethality is that most fighting in roleplaying games is, well, lethal. Yet the most interesting stories we read, and many (not all) of the movies we watch involve trying to capture rather than kill the main villain, and a satisfying outcome often involves an antagonist being surrounded, pinned down by gunfire and forced to surrender, rather than taken down in a hail of bullets. This leaves open more possibilities, too: interrogation, escape, recurring villains (you can’t have a recurring villain if the villain is killed at the end of every story). I’ve lost count of the number of times that key clues have been lost in games I’ve run because the players shot the clue-bearer. Games have become so deadly that some of my GMs have been forced to resort to giving every villain a teleportation ring or similar so that they can live to fight another day!

I want to see more systems that include express consideration of, for example, how to handcuff the villain. That include mechanics for (or at least consideration of) morale, and grappling mechanics that don’t cause my brain to explode. I want games where killing is the last resort rather than the normal modus operandi.

Wimping: the black hole of GMless games

I’ve been playing a lot of GMless games lately, and because of the absence of a pre-written plot, these games have a lot in common with improv. In improv, there is a term called “wimping”, which is when one of the actors – without explicitly blocking what another actor says – effectively reflects it back at them without adding anything to the conversation.

There’s an excellent example given here, which I cannot add anything to and so shall quote wholesale:

JEFF: Oh my gosh that thing is big!
MEL: Yeah! It’s really huge!
JEFF: It’s getting bigger!
MEL: It sure is!
JEFF: My goodness, it’s eating the dog!
MEL: The poor dog.

See how Jeff is making all the running in that exchange? Every new element is created by him and merely restated by Mel.

Now, in GMless roleplaying there is typically shared responsibility for creating plot and background elements, so what we have is essentially improv. Each player can add new elements at will, and when someone else adds an element they can either accept it but not do anything with it (wimping) or take it and run with it in an interesting way. It’s not exactly news that the latter is a better way to go, and if you’ve played GMless games you’ll probably be familiar with the situation where someone is throwing out interesting material and it is essentially being either ignored or, at any rate, not added to by others.

There’s a more pernicious form of wimping, where nobody is really creating new material. This becomes an empty conversation, like those awkward exchanges where you just talk about the weather because you don’t want to risk putting anything more interesting into the pot. I’m not sure there’s a term for this: I’ll call it the double-wimp.

This doesn’t happen much in roleplaying because, after all, you’ve usually got some helpful mechanisms and a shared agenda of creating drama, which push you to create stuff. But roleplayers have their own special kind of double-wimp. Many of us have grown up on GM-created mysteries – the black box containing the plot which, as players, you struggle to uncover. The GM knows what’s in the box, but the players don’t. The interest for the players is discovering what the GM has invented.

Now think about GMless games. I’ve more than once seen a player create a black box in a GMless game. It could be a mysterious object (in a recent game there was a literal box with something in it … but nobody knew what it was, even the person who introduced the box), or it could be a vague reference to something that sounds intriguing but which is left undefined. What they’ve done is effectively wimped on their own narration. They’ve supplied what should be an interesting plot element, but left a blank where the interest should be. They’re hoping someone else will fill that blank, but all too often no-one does. In the absence of a GM who knows what the mystery really is, it becomes vacuous, a cipher.

Moreover, roleplayers are used to the concept of ownership. My character is my character – you don’t narrate his actions. Likewise, in more traditional roleplaying the person who introduces a plot element owns it, so others refrain from acting on it. When someone introduces an undefined mystery element, this compounds that natural unwillingness to mess with “their” plot, because nobody is quite sure what it is in the first place.

What you’re left with in this situation is a black hole. By its nature it is intriguing and makes the characters want to interact with it, thus sucking the story into its gravity well. But there’s nothing there to interact with. To overextend the metaphor slightly, the plot is crushed to death with agonising slowness as the flow of time itself is distorted around it. At least, that’s how it can feel at times.

If you’re playing GMless games, my advice is to avoid this phenomenon like the plague. Do not introduce mysterious elements if you can help it. If you must, don’t throw in a mysterious element unless you know what you’re doing with it. You shouldn’t be so committed to your idea of what the “truth” behind the mystery is that nobody else can come in and change it, but don’t just throw it in and hope someone else will run with it – be ready to run with it yourself. And take the earliest opportunity possible to reveal what the mystery is so that others can more easily play off it. It may even be worth telling the other players out of character what the mystery really is, even though their characters don’t know, just to avoid the black hole effect.

Styles of Role-playing: expanding the model.

About a year ago I finally caught up with the Forge theory of role-playing and the Gamist, Simulationist and Narrativist styles of play. I spent a while attempting to categorise my own experience on this scale and felt I sat unhappily between Simulationist and Narrativist. I wanted enough internal consistency and simulation to create the suspension of disbelief I needed but I also wanted to drive the story my way and have my character’s own personal arc unfold. I said I sat “unhappily” though because I never felt that the 3 categories properly spoke to my own experience.

When I role-playing I do want an interesting story driven by me, the other players and the GM working together. But more than this I want to be emotionally touched by the experience of the story we create and during that creation I want to engage in interesting, stimulating and revealing conversations. I have written here about Conversationalism in role-playing games I run and the best sessions I have participated in have always been deep and meaningful, and changed the characters participating. Sometimes I role-playing just to enjoy inhabiting an interesting character and viewing the world through their eye. This style probably has more in common with Turku or Jeepform role-playing but I believe it is time to expand GNS to include Emotionalism and Conversationalism.

Therefore I propose two new classifications.

Emotionalism: your agenda when playing it to experience emotions thought the story and your character and facilitate other players experiencing emotions.

Conversationalism: your agenda when playing is to participate in and create an engaging conversation which deepens, expands or changes the relationship between the two characters involved.

Whilst Conversationalism has a passing similarity with Narrativism in that the course of the conversation will create a form of organic story, it is difference purely because the aim of Conversationalism is to enjoy the conversation not the creation of the story.

A Little More Conversation…

What I most want out of role-playing is a really good conversation. A conversation which is meaningful, important and changes something, perhaps the relationship of the characters involved or the perceptions of my character or even the world in some way.

This aspect of gaming (which to me is fundamental) is rarely mentioned in the system books – Apocalypse World gives it more airtime than most, although it only really talks about having rules to regulate conversation, not about how to achieve a good conversation.

But even rarer is a system or piece of GM guidance which expressly supports and nurtures good conversations. Dogs in the Vineyard is arguably a system designed for social interaction/conflicts which should be about having interesting conversations. However I find DiTV ‘s dice mechanics so complicated and dice heavy that it largely sidelines the conversations it is supposed to be supporting.

The idea of mechanics being used to support conversation itself feel controversial to me and I’ll probably come back to it.

What I hadn’t realised is how much this desire to get amazing conversations happening influences my GMing style. It turns out my games are run primarily to encourage and support the interesting conversations between the PCs and NPCs. This manifests in a number of ways:

1. I rarely speed up a conversation to get to the action (in fact often the opposite).

2. I pitch my plots and information dissemination to inspire and sustain conversations.

3. I create NPCs with feelings, emotions and complex motivations, who are capable of sustaining good conversations.

4. I make the time for my NPCs to have serious those one-to-one conversations with the player characters to establish meaningful relationships with them.

5. I prefer to run my sessions one-to-one giving players the feeling they have the luxury of time to just talk.

I had my lightbulb moment in a recent Amber session I ran. The players thought that the focus of the session was the action based rescue of an NPC. The focus of the session for me was the conversations which would naturally occur once the NPC was recovered. I was lucky that this difference in expectation didn’t wreck the game and it could have easily been a disappointment. The actual rescue was quick and easy and took relatively little time. If the players were expecting to enjoy several hours of sneaking around, fighting guards and defeating an end-of-level boss they would have been very disappointed.

I have written many times about the importance of agreed expectations for successful gaming. I had no idea I was consistently breaking my own rules, – bad GM, no cookie.

I was lucky in that my players enjoyed the session regardless (down to my choice of players rather than anything else I expect!) I learned a good lesson though. I’ll be giving much more obvious signposts in future.