The rock of dramatic potential

It is a fact that some roleplaying games get into the meat of the story faster than others. One way to do this is to have a clear mission which is the focus of play, like “raid this dungeon” or “investigate this murder”. But what about the more character/relationship driven side of play? What is the difference between a game that cuts straight to interesting, meaningful drama, compared to one that takes ages to get going, whose relationships are lifeless or where the drama is just sound and fury, signifying nothing?

This isn’t just a theoretical question. I’ve lost count of the number of games that have handed me (through character/ world building at the start of the game) a bunch of interesting characters and intriguing relationships, but where I and the other players were at a loss where to start with bringing them to a head. The result, too often, is unsatisfying early scenes where we skirt the drama, or charge headlong at it, emotionally flailing at each other, but without any real sense of meaning.

I think of interesting RPG drama as like a rock that you must get rolling. The rock must have the heft created by meaning, but it also must have momentum so that interesting scenes can happen. To get the rock moving, you must roll it up the hill of dramatic potential, before it can roll down that hill, generating interesting drama in its wake. Games vary wildly in how big a rock they give you, but also in how much work they do to roll the rock up the hill.

Metaphors are all very well, but what does this mean in practice? Let’s take an example of a potential PC romance. A classic game like D&D wouldn’t bother to give any help making such a romance happen; it’s entirely in the player’s hands to do that. They might decide to introduce some romantic interaction but it might feel forced, or require quite a bit of work to get it going or make it feel significant.

Indie games might more typically help set up some potential, by asking you relationship questions like “which other PC do you have a crush on” or even “which other PC are you in love with”. This, then, is the rock: pre-generated emotional weight. It means weaving into your character’s backstory (even if only implied backstory) a sense that they have been interested in this other character for a while. It gives them an automatic reason to pursue a romance, and makes any resulting scenes more significant for them.

But it’s still pretty boring, as it stands. Even having established that one character (let’s call them Romeo) is in love with another (let’s call them Juliet), we don’t have a particularly dramatic relationship. One person being attracted to another, even in love with them, does not make for drama. Romeo may ask Juliet to dance with him, or suchlike, and she is left to either respond positively or negatively. Perhaps they’ll even hop into bed straight away. Which is fine, but not terribly dramatic or meaningful, because we have no real sense of their emotional context beyond “he’s in love with her”.

It’s actually pretty hard to get started on a conversation with your crush, as Peter could tell you.

For drama, there must be this emotional texture and, ideally, interesting complications. Consider these alternative starting relationships: Romeo is in love with Juliet, and Juliet is in love with Romeo, but they belong to warring factions who will never accept their love. Or: Romeo is in love with Juliet, but Juliet cannot forgive Romeo for killing her best friend. Or: Romeo is still in love with Juliet, after their marriage ended in acrimony.

These wrinkles add colour and meaning to a bland relationship, and they set up interesting stuff to happen in play. The warring factions are going to get up in Romeo and Juliet’s face and force them to work to have their romance happen. Or, Romeo is going to have to work to get Juliet to even consider him, and whether she says yes or no it will be freighted with meaning for them both. Or, their every action will be loaded with the regret and longing of their broken relationship and the question of whether it can ever be revived.

Good stuff. This has made the rock heftier, because it’s made the relationship more interesting and dramatically meaningful. Anything that happens to that relationship in future will be more significant because of the work put in to define and complicate the relationship.

But it still takes work to roll the rock up the hill. Some of the above starting relationships have more dramatic potential than others. What this amounts to is, to what extent is the relationship in a stable equilibrium where there’s no real reason to expect interesting stuff to happen, and to what extent is the relationship close to an interesting turning point or crisis that will throw it into motion. If Juliet hates Romeo’s guts because he killed her best friend, that is very interesting but seems like a brick wall in Romeo’s path. It’s hard to know how he even gets started romancing her, because the obvious answer to any move he might make is “get lost, friend-killer”. The relationship is stagnant, immobile. One of the people playing these characters is going to have to work (probably a lot of work) to get their character into a position where that can change.

Did you just kill my best friend? Get lost, friend-killer!

In contrast, if Romeo and Juliet are already in love, and there’s already a war between their factions, then that is close to crisis point. You can immediately see the possibilities for scenes that will pit their love against political reality. All we need do is have their midnight tryst witnessed by a faction member, and we are straight into crisis. Or perhaps we can have a close faction ally of one character kill a close faction ally of the other, to throw the relationship into conflict and emotional confusion. Here, the rock has been rolled nearly to the top of the hill, and it takes only a little more work to push it into action.

We can get the rock even closer to the top of the hill, very easily. Put simply, we can decide at the start of play that a crisis or turning point-inducing event has already happened. So for a starting relationship: Romeo and Juliet are in love with each other, but Romeo just killed Juliet’s best friend. Our game will start with Romeo having to decide how to break this news to Juliet or perhaps to try and conceal it from her. That’s an instant scene starter and, no matter what Romeo does, a drama-generator. The rock has practically started to roll already.

We could have started from cold (as in the D&D example above) and got into the above very dramatic situation in play, and there is a good argument that getting into stuff in play is more interesting than just defining it up front. But doing so entails a lot of work, during which no drama to speak of is happening, and with the risk that we’ll never get there. After all, good authors sometimes struggle to create engaging, meaningful drama between characters. It isn’t actually easy. Instead of taking that risk, we can kickstart the drama, propelling us towards exciting in-game decisions that lead to more drama, if work has been done to put the characters at some kind of inflection point at the start of play.

We can do the same thing but with a slightly less immediate “must address this NOW” feel by putting the crisis-inducing event further into the past. Like this: Romeo and Juliet are in love with each other, but Juliet doesn’t know that Romeo was the one who killed her best friend. Which other character knows about it? This approach puts the rock of dramatic potential at the top of the hill, but stationary. It only takes a nudge to throw it into motion: the character who knows Romeo did the deed tells Juliet. But that nudge can be held back and delivered right at the most exciting moment, when it will cause maximum emotional chaos.

Creating dramatic potential and putting things close to (or preferably at) an inflection point is particularly important for one-shot play. If you want character relationships to be front and centre in a one-shot, they simply must be made complicated and pushed to an inflection point, so that meaningful drama can happen in the session. Campaigns also benefit from this because it gets things going right away and enables the relationship to further develop rather than struggling to get going in the first place.

So, whether you’re a game designer or a GM or player, you can help to get drama going in your games early by:

  • creating emotionally charged relationships at the start;
  • complicating them; and
  • putting them at or near an inflection point as play starts.

These simple steps will virtually guarantee exciting emotional drama right from the word go, and make you wonder why you ever settled for questions like “who do you have a crush on?”

Safety Marks

In the course of writing, playtesting and now publishing Bite Marks I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about safety tools. The conversation has expanded so much since I started role-playing 29 years ago and I love how people are thinking about play culture, baking safety into mechanical design and normalising the use of safety tools and putting more conscious effort into looking out for each other. The idea that we are still only at the start of this journey is really exciting to me – I am eagerly looking forward to the next iteration of safety tools.

Just recently I was in the process of prepping a game of Bite Marks when I realised that in addition to all the stuff written in the book about safety there is something else I do without realising it – I figured I’d write a post about that.

Like many people I use the three most comment safety tools in my games and my play. The first thing you do in Bite Marks (and all my games) is create a list of banned items via anonymous channels as necessary. This is like an anonymous version of Lines and Veils as created by Ron Edwards. I also encourage the use of the X-card by John Stavropolous and Script Change by Beau Sheldon.

But I also consider what aspects of the specific game I’m playing are particularly safety relevant and then discuss them up front. I point them out with a big red hand. For Bite Marks there are three particular aspects of the game and system which may cause tension for players. Before a game I explain those aspects in more detail and talk through the ways in which those elements will work and the ways in which they will NOT work. Below is a blow by blow account of how I do that for Bite Marks and the three elements I highlight.

Bite Marks Example:

Player v Player

“Bite Marks has a player v. player element but not in the sense that the players will be trying to back stab each other. Player v. player conjures up a lot of different images – most of which probably don’t quite fit the Bite Marks setting. In Bite Marks, players can dominate or scrap with each other, they can force each other to reveal their feelings… but they are all on the same team. They are working to the same goal, they don’t have secret agendas that have the players competing with each other. This means the game has all the trappings of player v. player but the game play is really different.”

I always point this out so that the players don’t just see all the Moves they can use on each other and assume this is a game about screwing each other over.

Domination

“In Bite Marks there is a Move called Dominate. This *can* in some circumstances allow one player character to give orders to and mentally dominate another player character into taking an action they do not want to take. That is deliberate because it is about struggling with your werewolf nature, and your werewolf nature wants to take orders from those with a higher status. You might feel uncomfortable about being forced to take an action you don’t want to take – that is cool, your character probably feels the same way so channel it into playing them.

The move reflects how you are conditioned to obey, it isn’t about someone changing how you think and feel about the act.

This means that if someone makes a successful dominate move on you, then, when you have completed the thing you were dominated to do you are at liberty to row with them about it, blame them and have it change how you see them or even whether you will ever trust them again. In fact, it is encouraged that you do just that!”

Dominate takes away some player and some character agency and it is definitely going to lead to uncomfortable situations. So, by stating this all clearly up front (instead of finding out halfway through a session) people can choose how they want to engage with it; or whether this is not a game they want to play at all before the session starts!

Give In to the Wolf

“In Bite Marks there is a move called “Give In to the Wolf”. This Move gives you a big boost to your powers but if you roll a fail the MC will take over your character. This move takes away player and character agency completely. The Wolf is out of control and they are going to do something bad that your character will take the fall for. You can choose whether or not to use the Move, in fact if you don’t want to use the Move because you are scared of losing control I’d suggest playing into it and making it a feature of your character!

Dominate and Give into the Wolf are STILL subject to all the other safety rules, you can’t use it in relation to material which is Banned, people can and should use the X-card and Script Change tools as they wish to (and there is an additional rule in the game text that you can never use these Moves to get around consent in sexual situations – it just doesn’t work).”

I explain these issues at the start of any game (whether in person or ahead of time in an email or similar. A big part of the reason I’ve written this blog post is so that you can cut and paste this wording and use it in your own Bite Marks pre-session prep if you like.

Identifying which parts of a game world, or system might need some extra explanation and framing is a judgment call. I would say that mechanics touching on consent, anything which is a bit surprising or deals with vulnerability and oppression are good places to look for mechanics and background that you need to put front and centre in this way. Games which have themes of e.g.: horror, sex and/or oppression as a core part of their setting are also good candidates for a pre-game explanation. In a Monsterhearts game I might talk about Darkest Self and ‘Turn Someone On’ and Sex Moves, explaining in more detail how they will work, how they will be framed in the game and how to lean into playing them. In any Lovecraftian game I’ll give a briefing on racism and portrayals of mental health. Don’t forget that a lot of historical-style games will come with various forms of oppression baked into the setting which privileged players and groups won’t immediately recognise.

In a convention or game pitching situation you won’t have a lot of time to get into details – so it is worth highlighting the presence of anything safety relevant and then as soon as you have a settled player group you can do a rundown of the safety tools you want to use and go into any extra detail you need to mention. Part of your explanation will also depend on who you are playing with and how well you know them. Personally I’ll skip some bits of the briefing for people who have played Bite Marks before and are familiar with my three ‘red hand topics’ – but I will always stress and restate what safety tools we are using. I would more explicit running Bite Marks at the convention with a table of strangers especially if I know some of them have played Vampire the Masquerade which has a different way of using a dominate-like power.

Ultimately this is all about making sure that everyone is on the same page with the game and giving people the option to leave before the game starts if they don’t want to play with those mechanics or background.

In terms of other safety tools I think that tabletop RPGs could learn a great deal from LARP in how we approach debriefing after the end of a session or campaign and this resource compiled by Kienna Shaw and Lauren Bryant-Monk is also a fantastic compendium of safety techniques and goes into much more detail and explanation of the ones I’ve mention above.

If you are a UK lawyer one early principle you learn is called Denning’s Red Hand Rule. This rule states that the more unusual a contract clause is the more attention you need to bring to it. Lord Denning suggested in a judgment that some clauses might only be valid if they were written in red ink with a red hand pointing to them. I apply this principle to the games I run. What mechanics, what themes should be written in red in with a red hand pointing to them. Set expectations early, alongside your preferred safety tools. As a GM you will (probably) have a lot more information about a game than the players. So it is your job to identify land mines before people step on them and then point them out… with a red hand.

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How I run investigation games (part 2: in-session)

Last time I wrote about how I prep investigation games. I’ll talk a bit more about that here, but I also want to move on to talk about what I do during sessions.

My aim in running an investigative game is twofold:

  • Make the players feel smart
  • Make the investigation challenging

Those two aims seem kind of contradictory, but in a way they support each other. You cannot feel smart if the game hands you everything on a plate. You cannot feel challenged if the game is simplistic or handled entirely through dice rolls.

As discussed in a previous article, you can break investigation down into various components:

  • Leads (where should I look next?)
  • Imprints (what clues are there?)
  • Patterns (how do the clues fit together?)
  • Conclusions (what is my theory of the case?)

I want as much as possible of the above to feel like they were investigated by the players themselves, using their own brainpower, without running up against the perennial problems of analysis paralysis and the thing that seems obvious to the GM not being at all obvious to the players. I’m not going to pretend those problems aren’t real – and more on how I tackle them below. But for now, let’s talk about how I handle the components above.

My initial lead is always given away for free. That’s a given: the game will be no fun if you can’t get started.

From that point on, I follow a simple set of rules:

  • If a clue is obvious, you don’t have to roll to find it
  • If a clue is hidden but you look in the place it’s hidden, you find it without rolling
  • You can find any clue with an appropriate roll
  • Once you’ve got the clues, it’s mostly down to you to figure out the logical leads, patterns, and conclusions

You can probably see for yourself how the above could easily lead to an investigation stalling. If the players don’t look in the right place, or roll badly, or can’t figure out the next lead, then everything grinds to a halt. There are three principal ways that I solve this:

  • Critical mass. I make sure there are enough clues available that it’s unlikely they’ll fail to find anything.
  • Keep some leads obvious. Signposting specific characters or locations as being of interest will ensure there’s always a next step to follow (but there’s always the potential to discover more)
  • Move the clock on. If the players are taking too long, then I look to the next event on my timeline and make it happen – so even if they get stuck, the story doesn’t

The aim here isn’t to make it impossible to fail the investigation. That wouldn’t be challenging, and it wouldn’t make the players feel smart. The aim, instead, is to make sure that they never get completely stuck – even if they’re failing, they’re moving forwards. So there’s always enough clues to find something out, and there’s always enough obvious leads that you have somewhere to look next.

Equally, my aim is to create a potential dividend from being smart, from being lucky, and from being quick. Players who get lucky on the dice find more clues; players who think their way around those clues and ask good questions discover patterns and start to reach conclusions; and those clues and conclusions can enable them to get ahead of my timeline. Those who move at the minimum pace enabled by following the obvious links, probably find themselves fighting for their lives at the finalé, having left a trail of murders in their wake. Those who leverage luck and judgement may be able to save some lives and catch the perpetrator unawares.

What this means is: being open to the players failing – so that another person is killed (or whatever consequences I established in my timeline happen); but also being open to them wildly succeeding, so that my villains fail and their plans are completely foiled. The critical mass of clues and obvious leads means that I’m hopefully leaning towards success over the medium-term, with occasional frustrating blocks that make that success more satisfying when it comes.

I cannot overemphasise how important it is for failure to come with consequences. If they get stuck, then those consequences mean that the game doesn’t get stuck; instead of their next lead being a witness they want to investigate or a place they want to investigate, the next lead comes in a body bag. And of course, this also means that when they succeed, they’ll know that it was earned, because they know what happens when they fail.

Very occasionally this means the players fail utterly. The villains complete their plan entirely, and escape. That’s great. It means there’s now a future recurring villain, who the players really want to take down, because they feel responsible for not catching them the first time. As long as things didn’t grind to a halt during the session, so there were always fresh leads to follow and tense pacing created by my timeline events, then failure is ok.

One last thing: do not let things drift towards out of character discussion of clues. To a degree all theorising is out of character, since you don’t actually have the skills, knowledge and brainpower of your characters. But try to keep people talking as their characters, because that will help to reinforce the sense that any frustration they may be feeling is fictional, it’s part of the story. They’re not sat on your couch feeling worn down by the investigation, they’re stood in a dark alley looking at a corpse and wondering when the next one will show up.

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How to be a great RPG player

I’d like to talk a bit about how players can contribute to making a roleplaying game as much fun as possible for everyone. The headline is: Don’t expect your GM to make all the effort, or to make the game fun for you. Roleplaying isn’t like going to a movie – your contributions are as important to making the game fun as the GM’s contributions. Don’t show up expecting to sit back and watch. Get stuck in!

I’ve observed that people often like to talk about how to achieve GM mastery, or how you (the GM) can best entertain your players and meet their needs. Such things are the fodder for countless articles. And that’s completely valid! In a GM’d game, the GM is often a really key person, and it’s important that they do everything they can to make the experience great for everyone. But guess what? It’s not only the GM’s job to do that. You can and should do things to help to make the game enjoyable for everyone (including the GM, and including yourself).

What things can you do to make the game better?

1. Look out for what the GM is offering you, and SAY YES. Come up with a reason why your character is interested in what’s on the table. And I don’t mean sarcastically saying “oh, I guess we’re meant to go to the dark dungeon, I bet that will be fun”. I mean genuinely looking for reasons to engage with what the GM puts on the table. That doesn’t have to mean doing exactly what the GM expected you to: engaging with the game could mean finding a clever way around a problem or turning an expected enemy into an ally. What it definitely doesn’t mean is turning around and walking away from a situation.

2. Look out for what the other players are interested in and engage with that too. Look to make connections with them. Take an interest in what they’re doing. In some games that might mean reacting strongly, creating intra-character drama. In others it might mean being a supportive team player. Still others might be adversarial in nature. You can probably tell what kind of game you’re in, but if in doubt, ask – discuss it with your group, and then engage in a way that works for the game. Bankuei’s same page tool could be handy here.

3. If you find the above hard, then it might mean you need to talk to the group about it. A roleplaying game should ideally get you excited, and make you want to leap in and engage with the story and with the other players’ characters. If that’s not how you’re feeling then maybe you’re in the wrong game, or maybe there’s something you want from the game you’re not getting right now. But be prepared to listen and think about what you could do, before you start making demands on others. It’s your game too.

4. Look for opportunities to involve the other players in whatever you’re doing. It’s fun to have the spotlight – share it with your friends! Ask another player’s character to help you. Ask their advice. You’ll be helping to enthuse another player and improving the game too.

5. Get comfortable improvising, and throw yourself at the story. Don’t worry about what might go wrong, get stuck in! The GM is constantly making stuff up to make your game feel real and cool. You should do this too. If everyone has to wait while you think or debate the exact right thing to do or say, that’s… sorry, but a bit boring. Your first thought is probably good enough. And you know, if you realise a couple of seconds later you said the wrong thing, you can always ask for a do-over (but only do it if you really need to). GMs, be nice – if you jump on the first thing a player says and use it to hurt them, you are hurting your game. Everyone will want to spend hours thinking and discussing the best action to take, to avoid getting kicked. Don’t make them feel like every moment is a trap waiting to spring on them.

6. Pay attention. Listen. Focus on what’s happening at the table. Chatting to someone outside the game, checking your phone, zoning out – they all kill the energy at the table. Learn to enjoy watching the other players. You’ll get more from the game if you know what they’re doing anyway, because you’ll know how to engage with what they’re doing, and how to push their buttons in fun and interesting ways.

7. Cut down on the funny remarks. Ok, take this one with a pinch of salt, because after all we’re here to have fun, and table banter can be fun. But unless it’s in character, table banter isn’t the game, and ultimately is a distraction from the game. So by all means make jokes, but don’t overdo it. Especially don’t make fun of other people’s characters or ideas – you’ll kill their enthusiasm.

8. Tell the other players what you’re enjoying. Tell them their plan was awesome. Tell them you enjoyed their characterisation. Pump up their enthusiasm! And do the same for the GM, it makes a big difference. Plus all of this helps the group to learn what each other like – and supply it. It will make your game better. The other half of the coin is talking about what you’re not enjoying: but keep this to a minimum, because it’s better to encourage than criticise. Major on what’s good, because if the game focuses on that then the bad stuff gets edged out anyway.

I’m sure there’s more I could write here. The bottom line is, GMs don’t turn up to run a game, to spoon-feed entertainment to you. They turn up to have a fun experience with the other players. Just one attentive, giving, engaged player makes a HUGE difference to the fun the GM has – a whole group is basically GM heaven. And great players improve the game for the other players too. Be that player.

By the way, if you’re still thirsty for more, I cannot recommend these two articles enough: Play to lift up, 11 ways to be a better roleplayer.

 

 

Approaching the Problematic: Lovecraft and Me

It is important to be honest when something you love is problematic.

I love Lovecraft’s work and at the same time I hate his worldview.

I will not try to excuse the fact he was a bigoted racist nor that his outdated ideas about women, sex and mental health were hurtful and damaging. (If you are scratching your head thinking “what, Lovecraft, a racist – I would recommend this excellent article here by Nnedi Okorafor about Lovecraft and racism. ) And yet I’m co-writing and soon to be publishing Lovecraftesque, a game inspired by Lovecraft.

I’ve really grappled with this game on a personal level. Ever since reading Graham Walmsley’s excellent “Stealing Cthulhu” it has been clear that Lovecraft gaming needed a GMful Story Game variant. Not just needed, but the source material was perfectly set up to create such a game. As Graham reminds us Lovecraft’s stories are (almost) always about a lone protagonist uncovering something terrifying and being powerless to affect it. It also allowed Josh and I to experiment with writing a system for a satisfying investigative game which is no-prep, consistent and co-created. I think we’ve done a great job with that.

What draws me to Lovecraft is his fusion of the style and motifs of Gothic Horror with concepts that are pure science fiction. He creates a compelling and detailed universe which he then ruthlessly refers to again and again. Barely a story goes by without mention of the Necronomican or similar fan nods. But, and this is a big but… Lovecraft’s worldview is abhorrent and it leaks into his stories like bad guttering. Nasty remarks about people of colour in The Horror at Red Hook, parables against intermarriage and obsession with racial purity in The Shadow over Innsmouth and The Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and parables against immigration in The Street.

I struggle with it and I have every sympathy for those who do not wish to expend their energy on trying to reconcile with Lovecraft. Similarly the casual bigotry towards mental health problems, the ready slur that someone cannot be trusted because they are ‘mad’ is a constant feature.

This is not to say – “poor Becky, it is so hard for her”.  More that I don’t feel I should be writing or pseudo-promoting Lovecraft without an attempt to make the material more inclusive.  Without owning that something I like is problematic and challenging.  In particular I believe strongly that if you don’t look at his work critically then you are doomed to perpetuate and even expand on his racism – albeit unconsciously.  I don’t want to end up in that space.

 

That is why it was essential to Josh and I that, in undertaking this game, we took a long hard look at unpacking the problems with Lovecraft and writing game guidance on how the players can approach it at the table. I believe it is possible to have a satisfying game which feels like Lovecraft without the racism and by using a more inclusive and more sensitive approach to mental health. We have done a lot of thinking and listening and asking for help on these issues over the last few months – so many wonderful people in G+ have been generous in listening and helping us expose the problems and think about how to tackle them. Thank you everyone!

So here are a couple of the things we have incorporated into the game so far (more is coming!):

1. Firstly (and this applies to so many things!) get active consent. Have a discussion with your players, ask them what they are comfortable with and what they don’t want in the game. Don’t make any assumptions. Just because there was lots of racism in society in the Victorian age ( and you could insert any number of alternative settings here) doesn’t mean that people want to play through it. I can love the feel of Victoriana without wanting to play the detailed racism and sexism. If anyone at your gaming table has any issues with bringing racism etc. into the game (and I can guarantee you I would be one of those people!) then don’t do it.

If you are running a game for strangers who may not be comfortable with telling the table they want to keep sexism or homophobia out of a game then consider taking the lead and banning it anyway. Personally, I don’t know of a single game which was enhanced by casual thoughtless bigotry (unless the point of the game is to call it out and deal with it) but I’ve definitely played in games which were wrecked by it.

2. Secondly, getting consent sometimes goes beyond who is at the table – but where you are and whether you can be overheard. Are you at a Con or other public space? Does having racism, sexism and mental health bigotry in your game mean that passers by are going to get a dose of ‘surprise race hate’ they weren’t expecting. You probably don’t mean it like that – but in our community we have a responsibility to look out for each other.

Given the subject matter of Lovecraft I feel we have an extra duty to be better, to actively care more for each other.

Lovecraftesque will have sections dealing with both Racism and Mental Health in the game text and beautifully diverse artwork. If we can we are hoping to go into these in more detail in stretch goals… but that will depend on you backing us!

So watch this space!

For more resources on this check out:

Deeper in the Game blog by Chris Chin

Orientalism and Exoticism: How Good Intentions Go Astray by Mo Holkar

Mental Illness: Not a Flavour, Not and Excuse by Shoshana Kessock

Four questions for your NPC

I’m starting a new campaign in a couple of weeks’ time. I’m planning to use these four questions to rapidly develop my NPCs when I need to.

1. What does she want? Why? This question should be answered with half an eye to how this might intersect with what the PCs want. Is this a character the players might work with, or one who is likely to oppose them? But mostly, it’s about giving every major NPC something that they’re up to, so she isn’t just inert but in motion, or at least ready to move towards something. Why is important too, firstly because it dramatically changes how we feel about what she want, but also because it tells us a lot about what kind of character she is. So maybe she wants to take down the Empire, because they executed her brother; or maybe she wants the same thing because she hates the Emperor. (How do the PCs feel about the Empire?) Perhaps she plans to rob a bank because she needs the money to pay off her gambling debts, or perhaps she’s just greedy.

2. Who does he love? Is it true love, brotherly love, loyalty, or what? (Could be “what” rather than “who”, but that’s usually less interesting.) This is a separate question to 1, partly because it’s about who the character values without any need for a “why?”, and partly because it will often be the case that the character already has the person or thing that they love. (If they don’t, there may well be an overlap with the first question.) Again, we have half an eye on how this intersects with the PC’s interests – do they love or hate the person in question? The second part of the question helps to colour the question, which shouldn’t just be about romantic love but any positive relationship bond.

3. Who does she hate? Is this implacable hatred, rivalry, petty dislike or what? (Again, could be a “what” rather than a “who”.) Very similar considerations apply to question 2. Hate is great because it puts people at odds even when there’s nothing much at stake; they look for ways to hurt each other regardless. It’s somewhat interesting if the NPC hates the players, but probably more interesting when it’s a third person they have in common.

4. What will he do? How far would he go? In pursuit of his goals, his loves or his hatreds. This question tells us what the character’s immediate actions are going to be, and what his limits are. Immediate action is important for obvious reasons: it puts the character in motion straight away, makes them more than just a person you might meet. As for the character’s limits: Player characters are at their most interesting when they refrain from action not because they are incapable of acting, but because they believe it would be objectionable morally or emotionally. The same logic applies to NPCs. (Though a line the NPC won’t cross for simple practical reasons could also be important.)

Caveat: I think I’ve been thinking about these issues informally for a long time and used them in games without thinking, but this stuff is otherwise untested. Who knows whether I’ll still think they’re a good idea in three weeks! I’ll report back when I know.

Investigating investigation

Due to popular demand (well, Blackrat demand), I am going to write a bit more about investigation and how it can be systematised.

Fundamentally, investigation in roleplaying is about searching for and discovering clues which can be used to draw conclusions about something happening in the fictional world of the game. If you over-mechanicise searching for clues (for example by making discovery automatic, as with Trail of Cthulhu) then you end up with something that feels like railroading. If you elide the discovery of clues and drawing of conclusions (something it’s easy for a GM worried about whether the players will be up to the task of deducing what is going on) then you end up with exposition rather than true investigation.

We can break it down further
– Following leads to direct the search for clues towards particular people, places, groups, events and so on.
– Finding the imprint left by the events one is investigating, especially if it is concealed (fingerprints, footprints, CCTV footage, a statement by a witness…)
– Identifying a pattern, an anomaly within a pattern or a definite lack of pattern (for instance, all the victims belonged to the same religion)
– Interpreting the imprints and patterns found so far to draw conclusions about what might have happened
– Making the link between an imprint, pattern or conclusion and a new lead, widening the investigation (a person whose fingerprints, footprints, etc were left at the scene; the local temple of the religious group being victimised, etc)
– Drawing a solid enough conclusion to allow a confrontation of some sort (arrest the murderer, grab the lost artifact, reunite the father with his lost daughter)

Each of these can in principle be broken down into appropriate skills or abilities (forensics, interrogation and so on), if the game system wishes, but most game systems don’t really use the above breakdown. Most systems concentrate almost exclusively on the second bullet: finding the imprint through awareness tests, while some that are more focused on investigation also move on to the third and fourth bullets, allowing skill use to draw conclusions such as “these footprints were made by a very large man”.

To me, at the heart of an investigation game is how you move through these steps, and how the elements highlighted in bold get you from one step to the next. What makes an investigation game enjoyable for me as a player (and vicariously as a GM) is taking those steps myself, not having the system do it all for me; but of course, since I am not in fact a forensics expert or arch-interrogator or whatnot, it must give me just enough information to make it possible for me to draw conclusions and decide on appropriate leads myself, rather than spoon feeding me.

Great Expectations

So, there’s been an interesting discussion on UK roleplayers about how “mooks” are treated in RPGs, and why more GMs don’t treat their mooks as fully-fleshed out (well, not entirely faceless, anyway) NPCs. This led to an interesting comment about genre expectations, which I shall now shamelessly steal and riff off.

Genre is a great tool for getting your audience in the same headspace (or for deliberately creating expectations only to defy them in some sort of twist). The mooks example is terrific. As mentioned in the thread linked to above, it would be a dreadful violation of genre expectations if James Bond were tracked down and sued by the family of two heavies he shot in scene 3 of the movie. Doing this could qualify as a twist on the genre, but if so you’d expect it to be telegraphed in advance. Doing it thoughtlessly would destroy any sense of what the James Bond franchise was about, and most likely alienate the audience to boot.

The same is true for RPGs: you flout expectations at your peril. Indeed, the whole GNS theory of roleplaying is essentially about how we can sort it out so that our games reliably give us the experience that we expect/want. The reason the theory exists is because the authors felt that gamers were frequently not getting the experience they wanted, for predictable reasons. But I digress.

A theme that I’ve noticed in roleplaying discussions over the last year or so is that a good GM is constantly observing his/her players’ behaviour and adjusting the game to meet it. We are told that we should give the players the game that they want. It is bad GMing, we are told, to just plough on ahead without regard for the way the players are, uh, playing. But this is taken a step further by a school of thought that says: don’t plan your game at all, but create it in reaction to what the players seem interested in.

This is all well and good, but it has the potential to be the ultimate in genre expectations fail. You can’t establish a clear set of genre expectations if you’re waiting on the players to tell you (through their behaviour) how the game should be. Worse, it’s possible that different players have different ideas about how the game should be. How are you gonna deal with that, hot shot?

I’m not saying that GMs shouldn’t be ready to give the players what they want, or react to their behaviour. That would be crazy. But if you set out some clear ideas about what YOU want, in the form of genre (or clear explanation of where you plan to break from genre), then you stand a far better chance of your players giving you appropriate behaviour from the get-go. This also has the added advantage that if your players hate the game you’re describing they can tell you before you’re halfway into a campaign, and you can either adapt or find some other players.

What this comes down to is, I like to talk about my roleplaying. I like to discuss it with my players, and find out what they like (and don’t like), and I like to let them know the same in turn. Genre is a terrific way to shortcut that conversation, but the conversation is still worth having – and not just hoping that by masterful GM skills you’ll just be able to muddle through and somehow give the players what they wanted all along.

Setting the scene

A lot of indie games break the action of the game into scenes. A scene is a slightly ephemeral concept, and generally not well explained in gaming texts (I can’t think of a single one that takes the time to set this out in print). Quite a few uninspiring roleplaying experiences have resulted from not having much of an idea on what a scene should look like. So here’s a short discussion of how scenes work, how to establish and resolve them.

One person, often the GM but sometimes a player, is the director for the scene. That person should have an idea for some kind of interesting situation that one or more of the protagonists could find themselves in.

Examples could include:
– She is having a row with her boyfriend because he slept with someone else.
– He is trying to repair a ventilation unit, which is about to catch fire.
– She hears screams from inside a crashed bus and goes to investigate.

Once that person has decided on a central focus for the scene, they should say where the scene is happening and who is present.

The scene can now begin. The players then play out the action, roleplaying their characters as appropriate. Conflicts may arise and be resolved, either through randomness (dice etc), through the dictation of the director at the start of the scene (“she is having a row with her boyfriend and during the scene they will break up with each other”), or through players making in-character decisions (“screw this, I’m dumping him”).

The scene ends when we have resolved the central issue – the row with the boyfriend, the response to the burning ventilation unit or the rescue or death of the children. The director is generally responsible for calling the end of the scene, but other players are free to indicate if they think the scene should end, or to object, for instance if there’s some loose end they’d like to see tied up. The director has the final call, however.

The director should have some idea of what the central issue is before you start, and therefore what might trigger the end of the scene. If you don’t, there’s a good chance that the scene will wander aimlessly. You might not specify what that issue is at the start, though it’s a pretty good idea to do so if you want the other players to act appropriately. Even though you’ve got a good idea what the scene is focused on, remain flexible as the action may change your view of what the scene is “about”. If so, you may change your mind about when to end the scene.

The location of the characters may change during a single scene – it’s still the same scene as long as the central issue remains the same. (Though it might be that a scene ends when it becomes obvious that the characters are not in fact going to address the issue – don’t just keep following them around until they do!)

In general, when a scene has ended it’s time to think about what the next scene might be. Again, don’t just follow the characters around 24/7 – you want to be there when interesting stuff is happening, just like in a book or movie.

So there we go, that’s my attempt at explaining what scenes are all about. Does that make sense to you? Do you have different ideas? Let me know what you think!

Paranoia and paralysis

It is a perennial problem in games I’ve run and played in that players (myself included) are prone to sudden bouts of paranoia, leading to the inability to take decisions. I call it player paralysis.

Player paralysis can waste hours of game play. I say waste: if you enjoy watching while the players second-guess themselves, it isn’t a waste at all. Many games rely on paranoia for their appeal, and the odd session of this kind can be enjoyable. But for the typical gaming group, pressed for time, probably only able to play once a fortnight or less, provided everyone’s free, etc etc – it’s a pain in the ass if nothing happens because paralysis has set in.

The primary type of player paralysis I’d like to discuss today is the kind that is generated by the perception that the enemy has the group outgunned or outflanked. There are other types of player paralysis, such as too-difficult puzzle paralysis or over-planned mission paralysis, but I’ll save those for another day.

As a player, it’s a good idea to be watchful for player paralysis, and prepared to occasionally take action despite your misgivings. But of course, some times paranoia is justified. Maybe the bad guys really are that bad-ass, and maybe it’s better not to take them on. In that case, don’t just sit there worrying about it – take alternative action. Running away is an option, as are trying to find ways around the baddies that don’t involve fighting them. Presumably that’s what the GM had in mind when s/he set you up against such a challenging adversary. If in doubt, it’s reasonable to ask the GM: are you expecting us to fight this? You might not get an answer, but you’ll probably at least get a hint of some kind as to whether your foe is beatable or not.

As a GM you have more opportunities to tackle the problem. You have a lot of tools at your disposal here:

– Rumours and reputation. You can prompt paralysis by bigging up an NPC’s reputation as a bad-ass killer who is immune to conventional weaponry, and you can help to puncture it by allowing the group to hear of the NPC’s defeat, or some mistake he has made, or a weakness.

– Reinforcements, resupply. If your players are quaking in their boots, you can give them some back-up. Maybe the local militia offer to help, or they acquire a better weapon, or some other boost to their capabilities to improve their confidence.

– Reduce the threat. Maybe the bad-ass NPC has to send some of his minions somewhere else, or perhaps he turns out to be vulnerable to kryptonite.

– Prompt alternative action. Either through an NPC, or prompted Intelligence checks, or straightforward GM hint, you can help the players to spot alternative ways to solve the problem. Is there a way the players could avoid confrontation with this overwhelming foe? Perhaps there’s some source of information they haven’t consulted. Find a way to let the party know.

– Take the heat off. If the group is feeling under pressure to the point where they can’t think straight, give them some breathing space.

– Put the heat on! It’s difficult to stay paralysed when you’re in a plummeting elevator. Have something happens which forces the issue, and maybe the group won’t procrastinate so much next time they get a little breathing space.

You have to be very careful with all of the above. It’s natural for groups to want to spend some time planning and discussing – it only becomes paralysis if it goes on for too long and it’s clear the group are jumping at shadows. Similarly, the group may become frustrated and apathetic if they feel like every time the going gets tough you’ll bail them out with some reinforcements or a heavy-handed hint. If you are patient at first, and use a mix of the above tactics when it’s clear the group really is suffering from paralysis, then you shouldn’t go too far wrong.

Above all, learn from your mistakes. If the group becomes paralysed, take some time after the session to think about what prompted it and what you could have done differently. As much as anything this is about understanding the personalities of the people who make up your group. Perhaps they don’t react too well to a particular type of situation, or maybe it’s one individual you need to keep an eye on; it may even be that an OOC chat is called for if one person keeps locking things down.

Player paralysis isn’t something you can entirely banish. If you adopt a flexible approach and get to know your group, you can keep it to a minimum.