Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Back Story vs. Players

There is an old military adage by Carl von Clausewitz that states "No plan survives contact with the enemy". Gamesmasters the world over know that this principal is also true for back story development of RPG Worlds, and can be stated as follows: "No back story survives contact with the Players". This is particularly true when you are playing in "Sandbox" mode, which means the Gamesmaster endeavours to provide the Players with the ability to go anywhere in the world and do anything they can think of. The ideal often turns out to be shockingly unlike the reality. What happens? Well, Players do the damnedest things.

A typical (albeit hypothetical) example is when the Gamesmaster has created a trap in a dungeon complex designed by the Antagonist NPC that the Player Characters encounter. The Players have Characters who have sufficient skill to discover and disarm the trap. The back story has it that the villainous dungeon maker intends to keep people out of his precious dungeon and safeguard its treasures. So he devises a trap that makes sense for that purpose. The Players, however, don't quite catch on to the fact that the dungeon before them could be trapped. They trot in like a troop of prancing ponies ready to conquer and loot. They forget that the thief character is there for a reason because they're so excited about getting at the monsters and the loot. So they dance into the corridors and lo - the trap is sprung and someone 'gets it'. Maybe even the whole group 'gets it'. Well, at least according to the dratted trap design which made so much sense in the back story.

And that's the rub. The Gamesmaster was expecting the Players to remember that they have a thief for a reason, but they forgot. Woopsie. And so what happens? Instead of a minor event where the thief was sent ahead and smartly found and removed the trap, gaining experience and saving the party from disaster, the Players forgot, and suddenly the trap is sprung. Dice are rolled, the damage is bad. If the trap was deadly, as logically, given the back story, it should be, then the damage is very bad. And moreover the story, instead of being fun and exciting, becomes a dead end of hopeless carnage.

The problem of course is that the Gamesmaster is in a bad spot. The choices are as follows:

1) the villains never come up with particularly deadly traps.
2) the particularly deadly trap doesn't quite work as designed when sprung.
3) the Gamesmaster hints to the Players until someone remembers to send the thief in first.
4) the Gamesmaster fudges the roll so the damage isn't too bad and the story isn't ruined.
5) the Gamesmaster lets the Players forget the thief, spring the trap and allows the story to end in tragedy.

None of these options is very great. What is greater, from a Story perspective, is when the Players play smart, and remember the thief, and save their party from disaster. However, one could argue that in the real world people are not that smart and a lot of expeditions have ended in tragedy because someone forgot something important like sending the thief forward to search for traps. And thus, it's ok for the story to end tragically because - well, sh*t happens, and a sudden horrible end can be amusing in it's own right. Some Players however may disagree. Of course.

It should also be noted that in this example the thief not being sent forward might have not been an oversight or forgetfulness at all. It could be because in a previous encounter they were attacked from the rear, for example, and so they decided very deliberately to avoid this by having the thief stationed at the back where he can listen for encroaching enemies. One thief, they point out, can not be on guard in two places at the same time.

The Gamesmaster is in a bad spot anyway. When you create a World you want to design it in such a way so that the back story makes sense. You don't want to be constrained to saying "My villains are universally idiots who can not plan a decent trap". You don't want to fake-out that the trap is broken because it doesn't make sense for the back story either - what is the point of having clever villains who parenthetically can't implement a trap correctly so that the Player Characters can still win when they went ahead and made a bad decision (in the context of this particular scene), or worse, forgot. You also during play don't want to give the Players 'hints' about what they *should* be doing because in some sense it ruins the fun. The reason being that it is a lot more fun when the Players make smart moves that save themselves from disaster, than being hinted at, cajoled, and otherwise pampered into making the "better choice". Of course the Gamesmaster could fudge the roll. And this, I think, is the most common response to the situation. If the roll doesn't "feel right", the Gamesmaster hides the roll, and decides against it. Or rolls again without explaination taking the second roll. For some, however, this won't work because in many games the Gamesmaster rolls everything above the table, with the odds sited before each roll. I play that way in my game because it's more fair, and lets the Players know I'm not cheating. Some Gamesmasters, though, have no problem with the idea that cheating is not a vice in RPGs. No problem, but that doesn't work for everyone.

The last option is for the Gamesmaster to let the Players fail. Ouch. That, from a Story perspective can be the worst option. But from a Game perspective it can be the correct and best option. Later, with their next Characters the Players will play better, and smarter, having learned their lesson. Presumably.

So this leaves the question: what takes precidence, good story, or good gaming, in an RPG? Well, the answer to that can be either, depending on what the group values most. It can be that both are equally weighted. And one can not but notice that in some sense the gaming aspect can reflect upon the story aspect. This happens when the Players pay careful attention, think through what they are doing before they do it, maximize their chances of success to the degree their Characters would, and then act.

All in all, it comes down to the fact that Gamesmastering is a challenging art, and so is Playing. To wind up with a good Game AND a good Story is the challenge, and it requires smarts on everyone's part. Even the villain's.


Keith S said...

Great post! As a GM who is a storyteller I've been guilty of softening traps and encounters to keep my story moving forward. What I'm learning though is this isn't my story, but my players' story. If they get badly injured or killed by a trap and have to spend time and/or resources to recover, that's the story of their choices. Any plots I've concocted should step out of the spotlight and let the players' story take the stage until the cue comes for my plot to resume.

Charisma Keller said...

Well, you basically have two ways of handling it.

(1) Don't help the players at all, because you aren't playing their characters; they are.

(2) Give the players little reminders here and there, as long as it's something that their characters should remember on their own. I'm not a thief, and I might not remember to walk in front so that I could check for traps. However, my character is a professional trap detecting progeny, so of course the GM should speak up sometimes.

vbwyrde said...

Hey thanks. Yep, I totally know what you mean. I think the "Sandbox" mode is helpful towards mitigating the tendency to try to create Plots that the Player Characters will (hopefully) follow. But it only mitigates the tendency. I think as a GM who is fond of good stories it's a conundrum because what makes for good games, doesn't necessarily make for good stories. Good stories are where the main Characters do great things, make a difference, get Epic Wins, conquer their foes and basically, after sufficient travails, trials and tribulations, win the day.

But RPGs are, on the other hand, ultimately games of chance. You can improve your odds by playing smart, but only to a certain degree. So when you play a game of chance you win some and lose some. Ta da. Game of chance means that sometimes the main characters just plain lose. Well Shazam, Shazam, Shazam! That's the conundrum. I gave an extreem example in my post to illustrate how that works, but it's true for all kinds of encounters.

I like your take on it, though. I generally take the same approach. I usually try to let the Players take the Plot where they will, and try to stay out of the way, while still providing background and NPCs who are motivated and doing things around them. So most often I go with Option 5, and once in a blue moon wind up taking Option 2 where I just go "oh hell, no way". Generally my feeling is to let them fail if they fail, and win if they win. I think that's more fun, and those results become the story. Sometimes the stories end abrubtly, and, well, that's how it goes. Even when that happens I still like reading them over again later (I write up my Game stories in prose story form on my blog which you can find by filtering on the 'Play Test Story' tag. Or you can go to http://www.elthos.com/ExampleGames.aspx to find them), so I suspect that even when disaster strikes - it doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad story after all. It might just feel that way at the time.

Anyway, thanks for the comment!

Unknown said...

There is another option, albeit one that does not work in every situation and which can require a lot more work on the GM's part. Plan for failure: make failure not result in dead ends like "everybody dies" but rather in longer, more challenging journeys to the same story end. For instance, in the example you use, don't make the trap a pure damage trap. A pure damage trap risks killing the party unless you cheat to pull its teeth. Instead, have the trap close doors on either end of the corridor your in, leaving you trapped while it fills with water or poison gas or the ceiling inches down to crush you. Then, the thief is guaranteed to remember "Hey, I'm a master trap disarmer, I'm going to try and get us out of this mess before we all die." You could have avoided a lot of stress and possibly damage if you'd remembered to check before triggering the trap, but instead of "everyone dies" you have a dramatic scene where the PCs race against time. Instead of "NPC villain doesn't know how to build a decent trap" you have "NPC villain's flare for the dramatic and tragic underestimation of the thief's skills allowed the heroes to escape" (cliched, but not downright stupid).

Of course, this doesn't always work. I'm sure you can come up with situations in which it just doesn't make sense for failure or bad decision making to result in anything less than a TPK. You may also think that taking the TPK out of bad decision making takes the incentive away from good decision making. You may be right, it depends what you want out of your game. But it's an option to consider.

vbwyrde said...

I agree with you Charisma, in that those two options cover a lot of ground once the trap is created. I kind of prefer the Option 1 in your list, for the reason you say. It makes sense to me because if you drop hints to help the story along then it is like you're playing their characters for them to a certain degree. It's kind of like cheating on their behalf. On the other hand, you've got a good point regarding Option 2 in your list as well. While the Player might forget, their Character wouldn't. So giving them a clue might make sense - where it makes sense in the story for them to remember that they have a specific skill. On the other hand, sometimes not only do the Players forget, but so does the poor GM! Woopsie! :P I can't count the number of times I've realised after a game was finished all of the possibilities that were inherent in the skills of the PCs that at the time I didn't think of.

vbwyrde said...

Great point Timothy! That's the sixth option I couldn't think of. It's a good one. Yes it requires more work, and relies on the notion that the villains are vainglorious, pompous fools, but why should villains not succumb to such human foibles? The villain who is bad-Spock should be rare indeed! :)