Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thoughts on Fear and Courage for GMs

Over on The Gamesmaster Academy (on Roll20 Forum) a new GM posted his Campaign concept (you do need to join the GMA to read the post, sorry) which I thought was a great and ambitious idea. After describing his concept he asked "How do I make the helpless powerful again? What is perfect? What is beyond magic? how do I instill fear and courage at the same time?"

This is what I wrote...

I see what you're looking for and this is a very ambitious project for a new GM! I like it. But it is very tricky to do what you're looking for, and I would not expect to be able to achieve it in one shot. You might think of it in terms of changing moods and feelings over the course of the campaign. At first you want them to feel powerful. Then you want to show that no matter how powerful you may think you are, in the end there is always something beyond you who can easily defeat you. Then you want them to start from the beginning and build their characters knowing both that they can become powerful, but never the most powerful thing there is. This will, if all goes well, teach them to play their Characters with some perspective and humility, whether they are powerful or not. I like the concept. Again though, this is a real challenge to pull off well. The challenges you will face have to do with 1) players rarely do what you expect them to, or feel the way you think they should 2) in a game of probabilities and dice things can always go in unexpected directions. For example, you give them level 20 characters and they go out and fight something that they should be able to defeat - but woopsie bad luck - they die there and never even meet the Assassin. Stuff like that happens all the time. Another problem you face with this idea is that it is, by your design, a railroad adventure, at least in the beginning. That's a set piece scene where the characters actually have very little freedom, and the GM is "railroading" them down the track of his or her intended story line. All to good purpose and for the story, of course. But seldom do players like being railroaded, and will most often try to jump off of the train - hence, problem #1. So yes, very ambitious. I like the concept. It will be challenging. Best wishes! Keep us posted as to how it goes, and feel free to ask specific questions.

As for instilling fear and courage at the same time... remember, courage is the overcoming of fear in order to do the hero's work. They both come in the same package. For most ordinary people they are consumed by fear, and can not rise to the level of courage, but for every courageous act, fear was what they overcame to accomplish it. So your real question is "How do I instill a sense of fear, without making it so overwhelming that they players give up?" And again, this too is tricky. Courage is a very personal act. It can't be faked. The thing you are afraid of must be something that is worthy of being feared. Courage comes when you determine to overcome that fear and find some way to defeat the opponent, even when it appears the opponent is overwhelming. It is an act of will. Ultimately courage must be born of the will within the individual. The GM can not, and probably should not, instill courage into their players. They can simply present challenges that they know could be over overcome IF the players rise to the challenge and determine to make their characters overcome their fear. Again, tricky to pull off, but definitely possible.

So the first part of that equation is "How do I make my players feel fear?" And that is something that can be done with a couple of techniques. One, make the opponent a real challenge. The monster must be tougher than the Characters. Two, introduce the monster in a way that inspires dread. Think of horror movies and how the Director builds up the story so that at the point you encounter the monster you're on the edge of your seat. Follow that kind of pattern and be careful to build your scenes with plenty of Descriptive Narrative setting the mood by describing the scene verbally with plenty of detail. Tell the players what they see, what they hear, what they smell, and set the mood by describing the lighting, the weather, and anything that adds to the narrative the elements you want to instill in their minds. In this part of GMing you are setting the stage, like a Director. Show them, for example, the scene of the last horrible crime the monster committed and describe the dreadful details in a way that lets them know that "Whatever did this was - Powerful and Horrible". Set the scenes and build up towards the encounter with the monster. Through this process you can instill fear... and from that provide the players with the opportunity (but not guarantee) to achieve courage.

Very interesting project. I look forward to hearing how it goes. :)


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Some Rumminations On the Never Ending Revisions of D&D

I have been following this thread on Google+: Original Post ... One of the later comments by Vincent Florio caught my eye:
"The newer the editions AKA "the more crap they pile into the books, and the less imagination is needed.. its all presented for you... no need to think. If its not written, it can't happen." Editions."
Which got me thinking ...

This trend started, I suppose, with AD&D, and continued at pace with a steady stream of new editions, total rewrites, and world-crushing changes every few years.

But for Pete's sake - Why?  Because, I suppose, that was TSRs business model, and WotC/Hasbro have simply kept the thing going in the original and most obvious direction. Nothing new under the sun here. If your business model is "we sell rules books for a game" then you're going to have to update, change, re-write, and new-ify your rules every so often, or you will go out of business. So every few years you're going to have to tacitly admit "The old rules from last version totally suck! But our NEW Rules are teh Awesome!" Over and over again. Of course.  It's obvious.

D&D rules went from a relatively light weight game with three small (but highly magical) booklets, to a heavy weight game with many books, tons of rules and tons of (needless) complexity. They then realized how sucky all that was and came up with the next edition, which promised to be much better, except it wasn't. It just was sucky in different ways. Why? Because it's too complicated. So the next edition had to be produced. This one also sucked, but in totally different ways than the previous two. Each time it seems they fixed some things, and broke other things. And each version, of course, has some people who learned that Edition first, and so for them it's "home", and they like it. And that's a good thing. It's kept the hobby alive. And I'm glad for that. It's a fun hobby and I think it's fabulous. I like it to thrive. So don't get me wrong - though I'm complaining about it, I also am glad it happened. 

This was not the only possible business model for TSR/WotC/Hasbro, by the way... but it's the one they chose, and the one everyone lives with.  My beef with it is that it could have been better than this.

On the positive side had they chosen a more efficient business model there may not have been room for the Godzillions of Indie RPGs coming out all the time. There might not have been a need for them.  So that's another good thing that came out of the mess.

Ah? What would the alternative business model have looked like? Ok. I think I have an idea... It could have focused first and foremost on working out an actual rules system that is clean, elegant, flexible, modular and efficient.  Step 2 would have been to produce modules that could be plugged into anyone's world, free of timelines, and any kind of backstory roots so that each GM could use the module for it's ideas and characters, and flexibly modify it's backstory to fit into their own world. But of course, I don't think they considered it. Meanwhile, the modules market died off quite some time ago.  It seemed robust at first, but then for some reason people stopped buying D&D Modules.  I'm not quite sure why, but I asked around, and the answers I got went something like "I couldn't easily figure out how to fit it into my World... so I started making my own adventures and that worked fine for me after I got the hang of it."   Hmmm... interesting.  Does that mean there's no market for Modules?  I suspect there is a market for them.  If they are done right.  That's just a hunch, though, and I'm far from certain about that.  I might experiment around with the idea and see if there's anything to my theory.

Anyway, I think that this was Gary Gygax's vision for the future of RPGs but I suspect it got derailed by the business forces that assumed control of TSR and kicked him off the board. So after that they didn't quite run the thing into the ground, but more like they ran it into the misty fens and it's been slowly grinding away there ever since.  Revision after revision of something-fixed-something-broke.  Or something like that. That's my take on it, anyway. Frankly, I never really got that into the various Editions of D&D because I had taken a different Gamesmastering path from the outset.

Homebrewers from the days of old foresaw all of this and avoided it by following Gygax's advice from the introduction of 'Men & Magic'.
"These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets. That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors." - Gary Gygax, Men & Magic, p. 1
We interpreted this to mean that we should take the first three D&D books as a template and build our own systems from there.  "Grown your own".  So we did.

I remember discussing the future of RPGs with one of my fellow GMs back in 1978 and we concluded that the TSR business model would inevitably lead to exactly what happened. We shrugged and said "We have our own worlds and our own systems to run them. Tether us not to thy never-ending revisions, oh TSR! We deny thee!" and that was that.  We were staunchly Anti-TSR.  Happily GMing our homebrews ever after.

Naturally, I encourage GMs to do likewise. And it certainly seems that many do. Which is why the Indie RPG scene is so robust, I think. As for the rest - hey, you know what? If you have fun and enjoy it, then you're doing it right. There is no such thing as "BadWrongFun" in my opinion. Just remember, though, if you ever wind up feeling stuck ... there's plenty of alternatives out there.  And Grow Your Own is one of them.  Just go back to Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and Wilderness Adventures and fix the bugs your own way.  The possibilities of a simple and elegant solution to RPG rules are myriad, and probably infinite.   Try it.  You might just find you really enjoy creating your own rules.  I did.  It was fun.  And I'm kinda a fan of what I put together.  It certainly works for me.  And my players have over the years given me plenty of reason to believe that my system works wonders.  So ... I encourage my fellow GMs to try it.  Grow Your Own.  It's great.

As for Vincent's point, I agree... it certainly does seem that they are progressively removing the need for people to use their own imagination, and attempting to provide us with a system that allows us not to have to think.   It's a failed proposition, of course, and counter to all that is good about RPGs, but that almost seems besides the point.  It fits their business model, which now has advanced to a new level of retardation.  Not only is it imperative that they change the rules, but they seem to also have  concluded that they must dummy down the rules in order to expand their customer base outward to those who have no imagination to begin with.  What we might call "The Ignorant Masses".  I suspect that WotC has decided that those people absolutely need a rules system to tell them exactly what to do, how to do it, what to think, and how to imagine everything.   Of course they haven't gone quite that far, and so there's room for creativity in the game... but there's a trend at work here, and I think Vincent put his finger on the pulse of the thing.   WotC/Hasbro seems to have come to the conclusion that they should be making a pencil and paper tabletop video game, because that will expand their customer base.  LOLRZ.

On the other hand, WotC might not agree that this is what they are doing.  I wouldn't be surprised if the designers of D&D E5 are highly convinced that it really is a great new system that solves the problems of all the previous Editions.   But then again I also wouldn't be surprised if they're not sitting in the back room groaning about the Pointy Haired Boss and how many bone-headed things they were forced to do to keep Upper-Upper-Upper Management happy.   I'd certainly be curious to be a fly on the wall over there at D&D HQ and actually find out what they're really thinking.   But from my point of observation it does seem like things went off the rails long ago, and that's pretty much why.  In the same way that the rules of a game are determinant of how the Players will behave, the business model of a company is determinant of how its products will evolve.   And this business model was just plain BadWrongFun.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Western Knights - The Twin Gunmen

Drawing by
Milo Barasorda

This is my character Flint Westwood, and Chad, his evil twin.  Or is Flint the evil one?  At this point it's a toss up.  You'll see why.

The story thus far... Flint and Chad were Shanghaied in Britain by the Imperial Merchant Marine, and put to work as galley slaves.  Arriving in New Albion (America) they discovered that the town of Kennsington was ruled with the same Totalitarian Brutality as the motherland.  They were shoved into a battle as cannon fodder when a local tribe, the Kawuki, dared to attack the settlement.   Flint, Chad, and Albedo Ray (another member of the original Galley crew) fled the battle in an attempt to escape the settlement, but were tricked and fell into an ambush of knights by a mysterious character they chanced to meet in a dark alleyway who promised them freedom.  They were questioned and tortured, but the three of them proved to their captors one essential thing - they could think for themselves.   And so their captors revealed that they are The Resistance, and so the three amigos joined forces with Lord Kennsington's twin brother, the rebel, and took a mission to go to town and report back the results of their latest sabotage attack.

Having found out all they could about the explosion that took out one of the Imperial frigates in the harbor,  they decided to jar the townsmen's sense of stability by putting up a crudely drawn picture of the boat sinking with a sunny face above.  This resulted in the town Militia rounding up all of the Indentured Slaves and killing them.  The Imperium tolerates NO free thought.  Period.

Fortunately, Flint, Chad and Albedo were rescued by one of the knights of the Resistance, and brought back to the secret encampment.  From there Flint and Chad decided to leave town and strike out Westward to see if they could learn, and report back, more about what lay beyond the hills, and more about the Kawaki Indians.  They slid past the guards, through the woods, and up into the foothills.  Along the way Flint saved Chad's life by shooting the head off a rattlesnake that was coiled up ready to strike down his brother.

After some further trekking through the hill country they ran into another outlaw.  This man has serious emotional problems, among them being generally frightened out of his wits by other people.  He also is a dreadful liar, and a trickster.   But Flint didn't find that out until too late. The only clue he had was that the man was excessively evasive.

They also ran into a horror.   In the hills thereabouts there is a fog that rises out of nowhere and engulfs people.  Within the fog one may chance to see a horribly large black wolf.  It may or may not attack, and in this case it merely watched and then faded away from each of them.   Unfortunately, when Chad was engulfed, and Flint was running from the fog being followed by their new "friend" stabbed him in the leg with his knife!   WTF?

Well, the mist-wolf faded away, and they caught up with the stabby friend, and after much debate decided to keep company with him after all.   As they marched they put him in the middle rank between Chad and Flint.

And so ... Flint gave the guy a whack over the back of the head with a branch to teach him a lesson... and nearly killed him by accident.  His intent was to merely teach the miserable fellow what it's like to be sprung on unexpectedly by your supposed friend.   Maybe he learned something.

And that's the story thus far.