Monday, May 30, 2011

Some Thoughts on GMing Great Story

Maighdean-Mhara (the Sea-Maiden)
All went well for three years until one day the young couple were walking by the loch shore again.  This time the monster rose out and it was Finnseang who was dragged under the waters before Murdo Og had a chance to defend her.  Murdo Og was wailing and lamenting his lost bride when an old man walking by asked what was wrong.
Murdo Og told him and the old man said: “I will tell you how you can rescue your wife and destroy the monster forever.  In the center of the loch is an island.  On the Island is a white-footed hind, slender and swift.  If you catch the hind, a black crow will spring out of her mouth and if the black crow were caught, a trout would fall out of her beak, and in the mouth of the trout would be an egg.  Now in the egg is the soul of the monster.  If you crush the egg, the monster will die.”  

When I read this passage I was struck by the simplicity and natural forthrightness of the flow of the story. Here is magic at its most enigmatic, and it is at the same time handled without flourish or frills. We are told that the magic is of a certain nature and we are expected to accept that this is magic of an enchanted realm and that the magic works as such. I liked the matter of fact-ness of the way the scene is described and my feeling is that it is the attributes of simplicity and forthrightness regarding an enigma that makes the story not only work, but moreover, great literature, as is evidenced by its vast longevity.

Then I was thinking about how a Gamesmaster could make such stories.  Is it legitimate, for example, for the Gamesmaster who might be playing out this above described Adventure to show up as the old wise man Non-Player Character with the magical knowledge, and even the exact solution to the problem?  Well, almost it does, but it becomes something of Deus Ex Machina, one feels, and I think we can legitimately question if that would be truly satisfying in a game-play sense.  After all, it is the seeming spontaneity of the events in the story that make them charming.   So how does the Gamesmaster go about creating truly literary quality stories, where the Characters (both Player and Non-Player) act in ways that convey the same kinds of qualities as we find in the fairytales and ancient legends of old?   The author of the ancient stories was able to imbue his tales with a depth of meaning and his characters with a significance that makes them accessible to everyone who reads them, even now after many centuries, though the world has changed so incredibly.  The stories still carry the power to speak to us out of the depths of time.  They still have meaning for us, even if we don't quite understand consciously exactly what they are whispering to our hearts.   This is the nature of Literary Quality stories.  They flow with the currents of an inner and often hidden universal significance.

But in a Role Playing Game it’s hard to achieve this.   Naturally, the author has a great advantage over the Gamesmaster and Players in this regard – for the author every Character is far more likely to do what he wants and expects and directs them to than in an RPG where the Gamesmaster does not control the principal Protagonists (Player-Characters).  It is not far fetched to argue that this fundamental difference makes it much more difficult to achieve truly Great RPG Stories.  However, it can be done, and it’s our job to see that it is done.  The question I keep asking us to consider is, How?

Well there’s so much RPG Theory out there, and yet my feeling about the vast majority of it, in summary, is “hogwash and fiddlesticks”.   Honestly, I do not think we can find the answer to that question via RPG Theory.   What the Theorists seem to wish to do is to establish rules by which RPGs can be made into a Science of Story Creation, but that is more than I think is possible for the Art.   They seem to believe that through rigorous analysis of RPG Players and Gamesmasters behavior (and feelings) can be factually and accurately defined, process flowed, and manipulated, just as a biologist might describe the interactions of a microbe, or a psychiatrist describe a patient’s spiritual epiphany.

But RPG Stories are not subject to this analysis any more than is art or spirituality.   In fact, it really comes down to the fact that you cannot codify the Spirit of Beautiful Art.  As such, I do not believe in a 'Science of the Spirit of Beautiful Art'.  Science is based on facts and measurements, and art is based on intuition and spirit.   You cannot measure intuition and spirit, so there can not be a science of it.  There is a great deal of scientific (or analytic) commentary on Literature, its styles, modes, periods, forms and the myriad of other things that Academics and Scholars like to study.  And all of it is well and good and interesting stuff.  But I think the Ancients went to school to learn the craft of authoring the immortal myths learned that craft in a very different way than what we think of as School today.  The myth-maker was, in the most ancient of times, a Shaman, and his education was obtained by two means.  The first was technical.  He learned the tools of his craft, which were complicated and difficult to learn and use well, with many technical details to be mastered.  But there was another side to their education that I do not think is generally understood today.   And that has to do with the Mythic-Journey.  The entering, spiritually, into the Other World to glean wisdom, and winning such pearls of wisdom, bringing them back to our ordinary world as the gems we have handed down to us in the ancient myths.

The ancient Shaman-Poet-Myth-Maker wrote from the genius of his heart, mind and spirit, and he took the world around him in all of its glory and pain and translated it into words for the sake of creating beautiful art.   I do not believe it was a science of art that made him great.  In fact, were he to have tried to do this via a scientific method (or in our case Gamesmastered according to RPG Theory) I seriously doubt he would have produced the wonders he did.  So that’s my criticism, anti-Intellectual as some people may find it.   Nor do I think we will find that RPG Theory alone can produce Great RPG Story, try as it might.   What I do not find when I read RPG Theory is what I'm seeking - how to create RPG stories that have the qualities of great literature or ancient myth.  There is something deep and profound hidden within and behind the mythos of the ancient stories.  I would like to know how I can bring this quality into my RPG World, and allow my players to experience something similar to what we experience when reading the ancient works of literature.  I do not feel that I will find the answer in RPG Theory as I find it has been discussed thus far.

What I think is required, instead of Analytics, is actual Life Experience.   Gamesmasters who wish to create Great RPG Stories should read great literature in abundance, and learn to distill out from it what makes those works Great Story, or Great Art.   But moreover they should seek to live a life full of experiences that can help them to shape their Inner Vision of the World, and make their inner light gleam with the pearls of wisdom so necessary to creating Meaning in Story. Then they can begin to add elements to their RPG Worlds that may begin to cultivate a landscape in which Great Story has a chance of growing.   It is not an all or nothing thing, but I see it as an evolutionary process.  You simply start with something that has literary qualities, and you keep watering it, cultivating it, and letting it grow with your players until you begin to see that your World bears the fruits of Great Story over time.

Another aspect that I think may be helpful is for the Gamesmaster to learn to develop a vision of the world based on their own life experiences.   To do this requires living a life in which experiences lead to insight.   I recommend this in the same sense that Shamans would head off into the other world via their dreams and obtain wisdom from the spirit world, and bring that back to their community in the form of healing stories.   I read a great book on this named “Coyote Wisdom”, and highly recommend it for Gamesmasters to read and consider.  Spend some time reading the classics and contemplating the stories of the ancient world.  In them you may find hints of Shamanistic experiences from the long forgotten swell springs of inspiration.

Now back to my questions:  How can Gamesmasters and Players create truly literary quality stories via their games?  And really, is it legitimate for the Gamesmaster to show up with the Deus Ex Machina, and for the Players to follow certain pathways pro-forma?  Well yes, sure, of course – it all depends on the timing, the mood, the Players, the phase of the moon, and how many butterfly wings flapped along the beach on the coast of Hawaii in the year 1200 BC.

But I also think that Gamesmasters who have insight, who have through their life experiences obtained a certain wisdom, can, and indeed do, foster Worlds from which Great RPG Stories can emanate.   I am seeking that path, and encourage my friends to do the same, as I believe in that direction Great Story is to be found.   Many say "it is impossible", and "Games can never be art" and other such nonsense.   I don't believe them.   And so I will continue my search, alone, perhaps, but happy in the delusion of my Great Story Dream.

If you care to read the outcome of my latest effort in this direction you may find links to my 2009-2010 Elthos Game Story here.   Enjoy.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Elthos PearlTree

Just a little something I've been toying around with... :)

vbwyrde and Elthos RPG in Elthos RPG (vbwyrde)

Maybe it will work? What the heck, I'll try it.

...hmmm... seems to work nicely in Chrome, but in IE7 not so great. Not sure why. Oh well. Nice try. Anyway, I like the base website for PearlTrees. Definitely cool. Embedding, so so. But main site? I like it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Sisyphus of Game Designers

- Sisyphus -
One profound lesson that I've learned during the course of this project is that it is really impossible for me to tell how long something is going to take.  A very good example is my current efforts at play-testing my Elthos RPG skills system, taking the feedback I got from my play testers, analyzing it, and then integrating the recommendations.   Wow!   Recommendations finished rolling in last Thanksgiving!   I'm still working on it!  Almost finished, but still!   WOW!   That's a very, very long time!

What took the most time?  The analysis, of course.  Actually, once I determined what needed to be programmed, it was difficult and tedious and time consuming (and not quite finished yet), but in all it did not take that long really.  Only maybe 10 hour stretched over 3 weeks.   That's not too terrible.  If I were not working a day job, and taking Wudan classes (which requires a lot of practice time), a some fascintating but time consuming personal matters, and family & friends, well, of course that 10 hours would have taken maybe 2 days instead of three weeks.  But as it is my calendar is packed solid every day, and so real life has a way of interfering with my fantasy life (of finishing this project in time for my fellow human beings to actually get a chance to try it out, hopefully before the world ends).

But really, it was the Analysis that took most of the time, and I did not expect that.  I should have expected that, but when I got my first set of emails on the skills system the ideas seemed reasonably simple enough to parse through and organize, so I expected the process to take maybe one month.   Hah!   Took a lot longer than that!

One take away from this was that communicating with the Player Testers by email has distinct pros and cons.   The positive side it is easy and the play testers can just jot down their thoughts and send them along very simply.  On the negative side it created a huge mass of emails that had interwoven comments about different facets of the problems (of which there were more than a few interlinked with each other) that had to then be tweezed out into individual (yet related) statements that could be analyzed.  That document in the end turned out to be 11 single spaced pages in MS Word!  Holy Macrel!   Unexpected!   That's what I'd call A LOT of information to analyze.  In case you're interested you can find the analysis on the Elthos RPG Forum here.  All of it, by the way, was really excellent information and feedback, so I'm very happy I have play testers willing to dig in and help me think through the issues!   It's absolutely great!   But it is also time consuming.  Not complaining, just explaining, so don't get me wrong.  I am writing this just as a hint and reminder to those who may also want to program their own game system in the future that these are the kinds of things that you can expect to happen along the way.   I didn't expect them, and so I was surprised.  Maybe you won't be quite as surprised as I've been.   Doubtful, but maybe.

Anyway, of course the analysis in the end distilled down to only a few statements.   And finally, it distilled down to two very simple formulas.  Hah!  The joke is on me that later people will scratch their heads and wonder, Gee - these two formulas are so incredible simple, so basic, so fundamentally no-brainers - what in the world took you so long!?   Next lesson learned:  sometimes to road to simplicity is very circuitous, winding, and torturous.  It was in this case fo'shizzle!

Don't get me wrong, though.  All of this effort was necessary in order for me to derive a simple system that actually balances and hangs together nicely.  It's just that this process of analysis and resolution took me a long time.  Especially when I have to balance the working on the project with my real life.   Were I to live in a cave with no day job, no family, no girlfriend or any friends at all, and a meager supply of food and water, then it would take much less time.   But that, friends, just ain't how my reality is configured.  Nor would I want it to be.  So the result is that ... it's slow.  Maybe if I had a team of top-flight programmer analysts to help me it would also go much faster.  You know, there may just be something to that!   But how to get from here to there?   Clue-free.

Of course, the risk I run is that because I am working on this project pretty much solo end-to-end, with few resources other than my own tiny fingers and a few pretty messed up computers (another reason for the delay was two severe computer crashes that cost me a lot of time), that I will get this project out into the public domain just in time for the sun to go into it's Red Giant phase, and our poor little world will be engulfed in a magnificent sea of scintillating fire.  Well, I hope I can get it finished before then.   That would be nice.

In fact, I hope to have it finished in time for people to try it out sometime soon.  Right now Elthos RPG is actually on the web.   It is in beta test mode.  It works, and does a pretty nice job, but I would also say that it's still got a lot of rough edges that need polishing.   I should probably mention that I started Elthos way back with my original rules system (still inherently intact) in 1978.  I began programming the system in QBasic in 1994.   I then converted over to Visual Basic in 1995 and finished the VB Application in 2000, and then extended and enhanced the application through 2005.   I should also mention that I did manage to play some pretty spectacular games with it over that period of time.  But anyway, I then began working on the simplified rules and Internet application for the "One Die System" which I created for use by the Literary Role Playing Game Society of Westchester in March of 2006.   So now it is an astonishing 2011, and I'm still not finished!  Yowza-Crikey-OMG!!  Good thing this is a really tremendously fun hobby!

Anyway... last lesson:  Keep At It!  It may seem like you'll never achieve your goal sometimes... but if you stick with it, eventually, one day, hopefully before the end of the world, you'll make it.  And then you'll be proud to look back and say, well, no matter how long it took, how difficult the challenges, and how discouraged I may have felt at times, I achieved my goal!  So...

Don't Rush Me!!  I'm working on it!  
hehe... :)

Sisyphus of Elthos

Monday, May 09, 2011

Pearls For Your Sandbox

This morning I was browsing RPGBloggers and I found Andreas Davour's post on THE OMNIPOTENT EYE blog: My thoughts on sandboxing

I think Andreas is certainly on the right track. These are my comments which I decided to cross-link to the (LRPGSW) from his comments box, since my comment started getting a bit involved. I decided to Cross-Post this to the ElthosRPG Blog as well, because, obviously, different communities of readers may find it in either location.

To Andreas:

I've run sandbox games all along so I'm pretty much sure that with what you have here would provide a good gaming experience for, as you say, pro-active players with some imagination. That said, I would add what I think is an essential concept to sandbox...

Create Pearls. Pearls are loosely coupled objects within your World that can be moved around and connected at will. Pearls can be people, places, things, or events. The pearls can be rolled out during the game when the NPCs or PCs trigger something that calls for one or more. What you probably want to avoid in your pearls are things that define them too rigidly within the world, although you can create strings of pearls that have defined links, for example an object-pearl that triggers another event-pearl that triggers a place-pearl. An example of a few loosely coupled pearls might be:

1) Lady Elaina, Princess of the Moon-Wolves Tribe.

2) Rathan Mountain, a jagged ice capped granite mountain on which is an ancient oak forest in which wolves and dryads live in uneasy co-existance.

3) Chaknorak, Wolf-Bane Sword, +2 vs Lycanthropes, and will return lycanthrops to human form on critical hits.

4) The Rising of Elehan: An ancient coffin in which is the skeleton of Elehan is opened, and the corpse of that terrible Wolf-King reanimated. His first goal is to find Chaknorak, and destroy it, for that is the weapon that killed him long ago.

Now you can see the obvious link between these is the moon-wolf theme. However, notice that there are no dates listed. No specific location relationships, or direct connections. Only implied ones. Those three would make a nice string of pearls, but they need not be strung together. Stringing them would simply be a matter of adding a notation that links them more directly. For example adding a trigger to Chaknorak as follows:

3) Chaknorak, Wolf-Bane Sword ... The relic is hidden in a large cavern guarded by the phantom of King Elehan. Whomever touches the sword will awaken the King's spirit and be lead by hook or crook to his tomb, one way or another, over the course of several days at most. The sword will hum in the presence of the tomb, and this will trigger the awakening of Elehan, who will try to remove the lid of the coffin, but be unable to do so on his own since the sacred seal must be broken from the outside. Once open the ancient King will speak in a long lost dialect, and attempt to take and destroy Chaknorak. If he succeeds he will return to Rathan Mountain and seek to find his old throne, resume his Lycanthropic form, and revive his kingdom.

As you can see the adding of the trigger to pearl 3 certainly ties it much more closely to a timeline, place and events that follow.

Pearls are a good conceptual model for Sandbox games. You want to create a bunch of people, places, things and events that are loosely coupled (by theme perhaps), but not tied together too rigidly. This gives the GM a lot of fun things to throw into the game, and yet not get tied up by criss-crossing complications due to rigidly defined timelines or relationships.