Drama and Dragons: An Overview of Intense Roleplaying

I’m putting a game together for a few friends who say they want an “intense roleplaying experience.” I understand what they mean, but it’s actually very difficult to analyze this enough to put together a useful guide. First, they’re implying that the storytelling elements are distinct from the play elements (such as combat, or disarming traps). That proposition is one that I disagree with, but that’s kind of beside the point here. Next, I know they want a lot of emphasis on characterization. They also want a lot of emphasis on story. They probably want the story to largely be driven by the player’s. They also want lots of in-character interaction between the players, and between the players and the NPCs. Finally, the most intense moments presumably have emotional intensity and have uncertainty about the outcome.

2007-05-10_Epidauros,_Greece_5To meet these preferences, I need to make this campaign a drama. The only RPG system I know of that specifically addressed creating Dramas is GURPS, but I don’t think I’d want to use that system for this game. What they provide is mostly GM advice for dramas, and some terminology. Let’s begin with terminology. The definitions I provide are not from GURPS, but are certainly inspired by it.

RPG Drama: an RPG that is principally about the “inner life” of a character, shown through character development and change.

RPG Melodrama: an RPG that is principally about emotional or interpersonal conflict between characters.

Creating an RPG Drama does not actually need dedicated scenes for roleplaying, but it does place demands on how “in-character” a player needs to be during scenes. More importantly, it requires that PCs are built in such a way that there is some kind of inner conflict. This could be as light as motivations that are sometimes at odds, or can be as severe as crippling existential angst caused by severe addiction problems. The inner conflict gradually escalates over the course of play, until it reaches a point where the character’s actions are unpredictable and the future for that character seems uncertain, and then it’s resolved. That character and the “audience” (in this case, the GM and other players) become certain what the future will hold for this character because of the change in the character’s “inner life.”

Creating an RPG Melodrama requires dedicated roleplaying scenes for the PCs to argue during, and has the advantage of being more social. It is easier to incorporate social conflict than conflict that occurs inside a character, if for no other reason than RPGs are a social activity. It has the downside of being cheesy. While there’s nothing stopping a PC from making a highly developed character, it is not required. All that’s required is for all the PCs to get into disagreements all the time, and be really emotional during the arguments.

I’m pretty sure the game I’m going to run for my friend will need to be both a drama and a melodrama to be what he means by “intense rolelpaying.” This gives me a lot of work to do before I can even propose a game to the group of players.

  1. I’ll need to think about how to structure individual sessions to give players the time they’ll need to act out their characters, interact with other characters, and have a conflict that might stimulate internal changes.
  2. This will need a new reward system. Most experience systems reward action, fighting, and problem solving. In Pathfinder and D&D specifically, levelin up also makes the game start simple and become more complex. Experience serves the dual purposes of reward mechanics to encourage appropriate game behaviour, and pacing out complexity the way a video game tutorial does. I’ll need a reward system that rewards acting, character development, and interpersonal conflict, and also serves as a tutorial for improving the skills associated with dramatic and melodramatic play.
  3. I’ll also need to think about how to adjust the main plot. Since the main events of each session need to create “internal” responses from players, and contribute to inter-personal conflict between party members, while simultaneously providing sufficient reason for the PCs to stick together, the campaign will need a very different kind of plot will need to be very different.  Survival stories might work, since no matter what else is going on the PCs will need to stick together.  Survival is more of a type of conflict, and doesn’t mean much about the specific genre, which is a plus at this stage of campaign design.

To the best of my knowledge, I’m going to need to come up with all of these myself. That’s okay, though, because I find this kind of work fun.

Example of Exactly Exploration: Plots and Props for the Scroungers

In this article I’ll make a small set of handouts, and show how it lines up with key events or places that I can predict in advance.  Note that this does not limit the PC’s set of choices.  I would argue this kind of set up actually gives them more choices, as the plot progresses at different rates according to their decisions during play.

Plot Arc

To begin, I will decide what I want the plot to be about. I want the Scroungers to find another society of comparable power, and the two end up not getting along. The climax of this plot (ie. the part with maximum uncertainty) will be when the PCs decide how to deal with this other society. It could be war, an attempt to open up trade and slowly monopolize them, an effort to promote cross-cultural understanding, multilateral diplomacy with all the smaller communities the PCs meet, or anything else that seems possible if the PCs come up with it. After that decision, it is just a matter of following through with the decision until the conflict is resolved.

I want this opposing civilization to be the opposite of the Scroungers. The scroungers are inclusive, tolerant, militant, and expansionist. The first two traits make them into good guys, the second two traits make them into bad guys. I feel a suitable rival would be isolationist and peaceful. Since they are thriving, I figure they’ll be expanding by sending out settlers. The settlers never asked the locals if they could set up their homesteads, so some conflict will naturally arise. Since the scroungers main achievement is figuring out a set of social rituals that allow them to peacefully assimilate outsiders, but the scroungers are still technologically primitive, I’ll make the rival civilization opposite in that way also. They are socially primitive, but technologically advanced. In my opinion, the simplest kind of social organization is when one person is in charge of everything, period. So that means the rivals will be a kingdom. They’ll have plenty of industrial professionals and high tech equipment, and they’re home town is an unassailable fortress of some kind.

The PCs will meet this civilization first by finding some settlers who have been slaughtered. The locals will explain why they got into a fight, if asked, but the PCs don’t get to meet anyone from the Kingdom yet. A little bit later, there will be a place that has settlers and locals engaged in a competition for space. The settlers will not let the PCs join; that’s kind of the point. However, this will give the PCs a chance to learn about the belligerently isolationist Kingdom. When the PCs eventually choose to go there, I might give them a handout like this: Exactly Exploration Rival Handout

Myth Arc

I’ve already decided the Myth Arc will be about the recovery of civilization. That’s easy enough. The first detail about it is the discovery of how important food storage is, and this is shown through how alcohol can be used for that. More broadly, it’s about how fermentation is important. I will provide a hand out of the various historic places associated with beer: a monastary’s brewery. Maybe I will put a historic quotation on the bottom. Wikipedia is my friend, when it comes to rapidly finding these photos. I simply look up “history of beer” and end up making this: Exactly Exploration Beer Handout

Once food covered, I think the next part I’ll cover will be water. Maybe the next hermit will have been a plumber before the war, and has large amounts of rain-capture and water recycling technology. He’ll talk about how important things like irrigation and sanitation were. Then I might start breaking down key technologies of the industrial era, and the raw ressources they require. Eventually this will give way to things that constitute a higher calling “higher calling,” like art, religion, and mathematics. If the game lasts long enough, perhaps I’ll force the PCs to make some history altering decision that happened somewhere in the real world just prior to the industrial evolution.

Keep in mind that every session there is only a 20% chance the PCs will find a detail about the Myth Arc, and even then only if they look for it. As nifty as this story could be, it is not worth working any details about yet.

Character Arcs

The character arcs that I will plan for are the “culture drama” arcs, so that means that each community that the PCs could potentially join will need a handout. However, I don’t really need to plan these handouts until they get close to finishing the arc. This will take at least 2 sessions of play (6+ hours), but will probably take more. A PC will get the handout when they join, and thus the plot is largely over. It can be kept as a memento. The climax of the character arc (ie. the point with the most uncertainty) is when the PC needs to adjust their behaviour so that they are finding ways to incorporate the new community’s values. I largely want to leave this up to player initiative and ingenuity, so since I want to be surprised I don’t want a picture of those kind of events. I don’t want to make a picture for a group right away because it’s possible that none of the players will be interested in them.  Instead, I’m going to make the handout a little memorabilia of their time with the new group, for PCs who chose to join. The PCs will receive it when their “culture drama” is over. For the Birders, I might make something like this:Exactly Exploration Birders handout

Mixing the Arcs Together

Pacing the arcs out is largely a matter of ratios. I want all the PCs to have a chance to complete 2 character arcs before the climax of the main plot. This is because this introduces a large amount of uncertainty between the first session and what their choices later in the game. This makes the game more fun for me, as the GM, because I don’t know what the PCs will want to do. Usually the PCs surprise GMs by creating unexpected solutions to predictable problems, not by unpredictable character development.Some PCs may choose not to join a community, and that is fine. By the time they’ve played this long, the opportunity to join a new community has come up often enough that their stubborn refusal to join says something about their character’s personality and motives. Perhaps, upon witnessing the evils of the world, they’ve become xenophobic, paranoid, imperialistic, or fanatically loyal to the Scroungers.

I’ll wait until half the PCs have completed one character arc to introduce the first event in the main plot: a massacred village of settlers. I’ll wait until the PCs have encountered twice as many communities as there are players to introduce the next event: settlers and locals at odds with one another. After that, the PCs will know where the Kingdom is, and will be able to choose to either keep on exploring or go to the kingdom. Only then do they get the Kingdom handout.

The Myth arc handouts are given out any time the PCs find an old hermit while exploring. The progression of the myth arc takes a really, really long time.  That’s kind of the point of a myth arc.  If after 3 months it seems like the campaign is going strong, I will start planning the Myth Arc to have a potential climax somewhere around 6 months.  Until then, I’ll only make a new handout when I’ve handed out my old one.

Alternative types of Action

Action movies are cool! I like them a lot. Dungeon crawls and other action focused RPGs tend to bore me. At the start of a campaign, they play like board games. I like a lot of board games. Over time, the same board game over and over again tends to become predictable and a bit dull.

So let’s change it up. I’m going to talk about how to turn a combat into a puzzle or acting/roleplaying scene. I’m also going to talk about action movies that use the threat of violence, as opposed to actual violence, to create the conflict that drives the story.

The Trump Puzzle:

A Trump Puzzle changes the way a combat works to make it more about open-ended, creative problem solving.

At the start of combat, the GM defines some of the enemies’ abilities that are dangerous to the PCs. The goal of the PCs is to find a way to trump the enemies’ special ability. Often, the PCs will only be able to impose their own threat in response. The idea is to create a back and forth as the PCs slowly accrue advantages and escalate the conflict, and the villains likewise attempt to regain the advantages they are losing.

The first rule is that no one gets to kill anyone else. Anything that would kill people instead forces a particular response. If the bad guys open up with machine gun fire, the PCs dive behind some crates and can’t get out again. These are called threats. A person subjected to a threat may immediately think of an action that allows them to avoid the threat, even if it’s not their turn. A player may not respond to a threat with a threat of their own; the goal of this puzzle is not to create a Mexican standoff.

The second rule is that no actions can be taken without somehow circumventing earlier threats. For example, if the PCs are pinned by machine gun fire, a PC might think of using stealth or acrobatics to reach a flanking position and thus force the other enemy to fall to a defensive position where they can’t impose cover fire.

The third rule is that failures result in disadvantages, not injury. A player has to make sure that their next action is consistent with the disadvantage imposed, or else they need to do something else. If the acrobatic character manages to get hit by a bullet while dodging and weaving to a flanking position, they don’t take damage to HP. They instead might have a wound to the leg, and now they cannot do flips, climb, or run fast.

Once a player or the GM is able to impose a threat in such a way that the other can’t think of a response, the combat is over and the threatening character won. This is when they’ve trumped their opponents threats.

This kind of action-puzzle will make substantial use of competitive skill checks. It would work in GURPS, for example, because of Quick Contest rules. It would make use of many opposed checks in a D20 game. A system that does not allow for this is not suitable.

For my favourite example of this in action, lets look at a classic type of fist fight in a movie: the mad scramble for a pistol.

It starts with an NPC drawing a pistol on a PC, which is a threat. The PC must respond, so they knock the gun to the floor with a quick karate chop. Lets say the PC fails their check. They manage to deflect the gun to the side, but suffer a disadvantage: a superficial gun wound to the shoulder that makes their left arm useless. The gun drops to the floor, and now they are in a fist fight. Neither has the initial threat (the gun), but if either get it could be a trump. The villain has another idea about a fight winning threat, though: he kicks the gun to the far right, so that when the player turns to grab it their shoulder wound is exposed. I wouldn’t require a roll to kick something across the floor. This action imposes a new threat on the player: if the player goes for the gun they get attacked at their weak point and lose the fight. The player responds by tackling the guy who kicked the gun, and succeeds at the check. The villain is now on the ground struggling while the PC starts trying to pin them. The villain tries to escape by bucking the PC off of them, but fails their check. The disadvantage is that they are now in a pin. The PC goes for a choke hold, and the villain can’t do anything to respond. Victory by submission.

Playing Status Instead of Fighting

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know about the theater concept of Status and how it can be used in an RPG through what I called “the status game.” Lets adjust this a bit so that it can be a replacement for combat.

First, lets talk about how status is used to resolve combat. The goal is to have an opponent go from high status to low status, so that they are now submissive to the PCs. If all the PCs are low status, they are forced to retreat or submit. When all the villains are low status, they will acquiesce to a demand to surrender.

High status characters can change other character’s status by interacting with them. They can make a low status character high status by behaving in an inspiring, supportive, or helpful way towards them. This will never require a check of some kind with most game systems. They can make an enemy high status character become low status by being intimidating, deceptive, or persuasive. This will require some kind of check.

Low status characters can use skills or checks that demonstrate that they are useful in combat (weapon skills, for example) to raise their status on their own, but only by targetting low status opponents. If they attempt to attack high status characters directly, the high status characters are simply able to defend themselves.

Any character may use any kind of skill that pertains to fighting to prevent a single low status character from becoming high status again. This is to make sure that the status game doesn’t go on forever.

A PC must roleplay every action they take. The goal is to replace tactical gameplay with acting.

Half of the PCs start with high status, and half of their opponents start with high status. The PCs can decide who gets high status themselves, and the GM decides which of the opponents start with high status. First each of the high status characters go, then all the low status characters go, and then the cycle repeats. Roll initiative if necessary, but since this is supposed to emphasize acting skills hopefully players will take the initiative when it is appropriate.

Here’s a good example of this kind of action scene: a western standoff.

The PCs are bounty hunters facing off against 2 gun-toting bandits. They are all staring each other down. One PC and one NPC can’t hack it, and avert their gaze. They begin with low status. One PC and one NPC retain high status, and continue to stare each other down. The high status player says to their ally “keep your hands steady, pilgrim. These fellows aren’t any different than any other bandits we’ve fought.” The low status PC now has their status raised to high status.

“We’re a little different… We have a third man in the hills, and he’s as good a shot as they come.” the NPC bluffs. He succeeds on his check, and the PC is reduced to low status again.

The low status PC points his gun at the low status bandit. “I don’t want to shoot you, but I will if I have to…” he swallows nervously, then thinks he sees the bandit’s finger twitch and shoots at him in a fit of panick! He succeeds on the roll, the NPC bandit falls to the ground with a minor arm wound, and can’t gain high status.

The low status character says “You son of a gun! I’m bleeding all over.” and shoots in response. He succeeds at his check also, so the low status PC also has a superficial wound and may not be raised to high status for the fight. But then a Player interjects and says “But Mr. GM, the bandits statement doesn’t sound low status.” The GM says “Oh shoot, you’re right. I should have said “Oh god, oh no, I don’t want to die!” but instead I acted in a high status fashion.” The Bandit fails the check, on account of poor roleplaying.

The first PC says “get yourself together.” This brings the low status PC into high status. The high status bandit says “Die, you lily livered law man scum! I’m surprised you could stop sucking at your momma’s tit long enough to come fight. Then again, I’m surprised I could stop sucking at your momma’s tit long enough to come fight.” and shoots at the first PC. However, because he is high status his check is for the taunt, not the shooting. The insult stings as bad as the bullets, so even though the shots narrowly miss the PC’s head he is now low status.

The second PC now has a chance to go, and uses their high status to get the bandit to admit defeat. “There’s two of us and only one of you. Surrender, and we’ll make sure you get a fair trial. Your chances are better with the jury than with us.” The second PC succeeds on their check, and the remaining bandit drops to low status.

Now that he must act in a low status fashion, the bandits most obvious course of action is to surrender.

The Threat of Violence

In a bunch of action movies, the threat of violence is used to create tension. Some great films that do this are High Noon, Shane, and taxi driver. In the modern day, some people might not even think of these films as action movies, because of how little action is in them. In these films, the threat forces the players to prepare in some way for an imminent violent confrontation, or forces them to work very hard to find peaceful resolutions that delay the violent confrontation.

This has a notable characterization advantage: if the PCs are trying to find a peaceful solution to a problem then they are almost certainly the good guys. It doesn’t matter if their raiders, warlocks, or con-men; they are on the side of peace.

However, it means that each scene can’t be a combat scene. It means the PCs will go through a series of roleplaying/acting challenges and open-ended puzzles in the hopes of delaying violence or gaining allies. The longer they delay the violence, or the more help they win, the easier the battle is in the end.

This means that the players need to understand that the confrontation is not one they are all expected to walk away from. It may also be a good idea to tie bonus XP to the encounter for each PC that survives the battle, if the PCs are trying to get into a fight as soon as possible.

Most systems are not designed with providing incentives for delaying combat. However, it is not hard to do.

Mutants and Masterminds has a few built in methods to delay a final confrontation with the super-villain. The villains will almost always threaten innocent lives when they’re staging their crime and escaping. The PCs gain Hero Points for when they save innocent lives, even if it’s at the expense of a criminal saving. This means the villain will keep on getting away, while the PCs roleplay and solve puzzles to save innocent lives. When the PCs have enough hero points, they’ll be able to use the hero points to rapidly defeat the villain next time they present themselves.

All you need is any expendable resource that can be given for delaying the fight for a bit. This could be “bonus uses” of good luck or serendipity in GURPS. It could be Action Points in D&D. It could be willpower in a white wolf game (although quintessence, rage, conviction, or blood would probably be more motivating).

My Secret Motive

With luck, this broadening of how combat can be played can make action stories a bit more flexible.  I have a secret goal for these also.  I want ways to resolve combats that can fit better with dramatic structures, or could be used when a party is split.  I think these will work.  I think with only one PC, a Trump combat will take 5 minutes at most.  I think 5 minutes/PC seems fair if the PCs are split up.  I’ll need to test this hypothesis, mind you, and make sure I can keep it moving that fast.

Regardless of how well it addresses my secret motive, it seems to work okay for my first set of objectives.

Exactly Exploration: Props and Plot Development

There’s a bunch of movies and video games that use really cool special effects, costumes, and scenery to make a setting come alive. Notable examples include Star Wars, Avatar, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Shakespeare in Love. Including Shakespeare in Love with a bunch of Sci Fi movies is kind of a joke. Don’t feel any pressure to laugh, though; I know it’s not very funny. Notable video games include Fallout 2 and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I’m not going to bother with an analysis of any of these films or games, but I will assert that the directors are careful to limit the use of scenery, costumes, special effects, or fancy graphics to create a particular mood prior to very important scenes. As such, the GM can study these to learn how to use pretty handouts to create a certain mood during particularly important scenes.

With this in mind, let us consider handouts. Handouts that are intended to set a mood are la lot like special effects and pretty graphics. From here on in, I’ll refer to these kind of handouts as props. In order to be evocative, the props will need to be decent works of art. I know a little bit about art, but not much, so I won’t try and instruct you on what kinds of art to use. I do know a lot about pacing stories.

Handouts that are intended to communicate information, on the other hand, do not need to look pretty. I have written fairly extensively on visual supports as an alternative to exposition, and the many beneficial effects this has on play. These only need to be rough sketches. These kind of handouts are not like special effects or pretty graphics.

Therefore, lets figure out how to identify what scenes are worthy of props. I’m assuming anyone using this advice will be following the other advice in Exactly Exploration. This means there are 3 plots the GM will need to be prepared for:

  1. Myth Arc
  2. Plot Arc
  3. Character Arc

The myth arc is a plot that is about the past, present, and future of the entire setting. It is mostly for framing the the actions of the party. The plot arc is either a standard campaign arc or an episodic arc. This will usually be the reason why the PCs need to be exploring. The character arc is an individual character’s change over time. This will normally be joining a community.

There are at least 3 parts in each arc: introducing the conflict, the climax, and the resolution. Providing an evocative picture for each of these scenes might be too demanding. The campaign will only have one myth arc, and probably will only have one plot arc, but it will probably have at least one character arc per player. If it was my group, this would give me 8 arcs to find pictures for, which means 24 pictures. Instead, lets look at using just a small number of props, in the places that the GM will be able to get the most optimum returns on their efforts.

The plot arc and the character arcs may or may not be well entwined. Since there are so many characters, there plot arcs will need to be very distinct from the main plot unless one of them is only concerned with the main plot. As such, the plot can be thought of as being of concern to the party as a whole. Introducing a conflict that motivates the party as a whole, reaches a climax where the party as a whole will need to make some major decisions, and then finally follow through on the consequences of their decision to create a reasonable resolution. Each climax is the point where there is most uncertainty and the most opportunity for players to create change. With that in mind, here’s a graphic indicating how these 3 arcs can mesh together. Note that the myth arc (the orange arc) is so much slower than the other plots that it takes multiple campaigns for the Myth Arc to reach a point where the players can effect change on it. Ideally, it will take multiple campaigns before the PCs even consider wanting to effect it, because the details about the myth arc will mostly seem to be about enriching the setting. The character arcs are the many short ones that repeat themselves.

Intertwining Plot Arcs and Pictures

The red squares represent when I’d put in a picture to create a mood. Let me explain why each one is placed where it is.

The character arcs only have one per player per arc, and it’s put at the end. The reason for this is relatively simple: it emphasizes the resolution to a character’s change. It will help emphasize the stability after a character has changed substantially. It lines up nicely with the culture drama formula, as the pictures can end up being a picture of their new home. This also means that the GM has time: once the PCs start preparing to join, the nature of the resolution is clear. Note that there is still a wide variety of ways the PC can play through the changes required, so even though the ending is predetermined there are many variations on getting there. Note that some players will want slower character arcs, or less character arcs. That is fine. An alternative would be to start each character arc with a prop, representing the location as it is before the PC joins. However, this might end up being wasted time if none of the players want to join that community.

The main plot arc has a picture immediately before the climax. That’s because it is fairly easy to plan what the climatic scene will be. This means that setting the right mood is important, and the GM will have time to find the perfect set of props to pull this off. Once the players make their choices at the climax they will need to follow through on their choices, so at this point the number of possible resolutions to the conflict will be significantly reduced. This gives time for the GM to find the perfect props to set the mood. Introducing the conflict that drives the main plot may or may not be exciting enough to warrant a prop. Personally, I wouldn’t bother.

Finally, the myth arc will have a prop at each part, because it is mostly for background. Players don’t actually have much of an effect on this arc. The first prop is to help define the conflict that drives the myth arc. If everyone keeps playing long enough, the myth arc will need a prop around a climax, and eventually one for a resolution. Good luck having a game go on for this long.

This might sound quite academic. Once I write the example, you’ll see how it contributes well to a story. I might give an example of a myth arc in a campaign I ran a while back, also. I haven’t decided if my campaign was very interesting, though.

Example of Exactly Exploration: The Scroungers go Treasure Hunting

This is the set of details needed for if players choose to not join the birders.  As such, it is an example of how to use hidden treasures and secrets to encourage exploration, in the style of 4x games.

You may recall the fifth step in the first session of The Scroungers:

5.  Exploration Visual Support. After a week of travel, the PCs reach a hill tip and see “this.” Then I draw a doodle. The doodle will contain a shrine made from a McDonald’s sign, a marsh with tons of birds, a smouldering city skyline on the horizon, and a herd of buffalo.

Now I need to add everything I need for joining a community, hunting a one time reward, and searching for secrets. Then I need to think of hints that I can put on the visual for where to go for each. The birders live in a bird sanctuary, so the marsh makes sense. The one time reward will be some really fantastic salvaged weapons. That can go in the city. I’ll need to think of an opponent for the PCs to use this equipment on. The information will be in the form of a crazy old hermit’s story. I’ll need to think about what kind of myth-arc I want. I’ll say there’s a 20% chance that there is a hermit hiding out by the McDonald’s shrine.

exactly exploration Example

To create a clear villain, I think I’ll make the PCs witness a sadistic and playful execution. There will be some tough paramilitary types with automatic weapons, explosives, a humvee, etc. They will be hunting the buffalo, killing far more than they need, laughing all the while. The buffalo will go stampeding away, towards a man tied to a tree. It will be kind of like how Scar tried to kill Simba in the gorge. If any of the PCs have a point in Common Sense, they’ll get a free tip: “these people are clearly sadistic and are very well armed. They are dangerous and should be avoided.” For now I’ll call them Scar’s Raiders, in reference to their Lion King like execution. I suppose that means I ought to make their leader a thug who calls himself Scar.

I won’t bother drawing up stats for these opponents, because (since this will be a GURPS game) the amount of starting points for the PCs will significantly impact how hard I need to make these guys. I need to make them stronger than even a PC who specialized in combat, but only by a little bit. The gear the PCs can scavenge from the city will give them an edge.

I’ll want to make sure to use damage to armour rules. I’ll want to give the PCs armour so that they won’t die from a little bit of bad luck, but the gear they find needs to only provide a temporary improvement to their characters.

I’ll make the hermit share his story about how he survived the years immediately after the collapse of civilization. Before the collapse he was an accountant, had a nice big garden, and he liked to make fancy homebrews. His fancy, home made lagers let him get through the first winter without starving, and after that he made sure to always make enough liquor to keep his caloric intake sufficiently high every winter since.

For the time being, the secrets the PCs find will be about how the survivors were able to use skills, hobbies, or unusual everyday resources ingeniously in the post-apocalyptic world. Ultimately the myth-arc I’ll be trying to create will be the story of human civilization, in the hopes of making the nuclear apocalypse seem like something that people can be recovered from. With that in mind, if the PCs are willing to talk about it, the Hermit will talk to them for hours about the importance of distilleries for food preservation in pre-industrial societies, the impact liquor has had on culture and academia, and it’s modern uses as an antiseptics or fuel.

If some players want to join the Birders, and some want to continue exploring, this doesn’t really introduce many problems. The delay will be bigger between doing deeds that are useful to the birders while acting consistently with their strange culture, and actually telling the birders about it.

Grid Based Combat: Asymmetry and Rapidly Creating a Map

Asymmetry is a useful tool for the GM when they don’t want to design a room based around game balance, but still want movement and tactics in the room to be dynamic. The previous post on grid design is all about how to design a map with game balance in mind, to ensure the maximum number of meaningful tactical choices without creating redundancy. However, this can be a lot of work and require a lot of forethought. It also makes a set of options available to the PC’s opponents that might not be useful. When the PCs are just fighting hordes of goblins, making allowance for how the PCs will position themselves to defend against area of effects is a waste of time. In order for the balance-based grid design to be useful, both opponents and the PCs need to be able to take advantage of range, choke points, speed, and areas-of-effect. This is not going to be the case for the majority of combat encounters.

So, lets say the PCs are a bunch of jerks who just walk into a bar and start a brawl, out of nowhere. The GM will need to improvise a bunch of homogenous villagers with improvised weapons, and a map, very quickly. The map will need to look like the inside of a tavern. This is the kind of situation for asymmetry.

A general principle of designing spaces is that asymmetry helps create movement. This makes sense if you stop to think about it. If something is symmetrical across one axis, that means that there are two places that are nearly identical, meaning there is less reason for move. If something is symmetrical across 2 axises (for example, if it’s just a big square), then there are 4 points that are nearly identical. If an object is asymmetric, there are not places that are nearly identical. This means that there may be more reason to move.

To use this, make the room as big as you want it to be, but do not make it a square or a circle. It must be longer in one dimension than the other. Then, find the centers across both axises of the room (ie. left and right, up and down). Make sure the centers are always empty. Then put in the objects that you want in the room: tables, pillars, plants, pools of lava, etc. Here’s some simple examples. We’ll assume each one is bar brawl, like above.

Grid Design Asymmetry 2

The starting location for the PCs (purple) and their opponents (pink) matters. The PCs and their opponents must be positioned in such a way that they will cross at least one of the axises, or else the various optional movement paths won’t matter. Ideally, moving across two would work best.

In an RPG combat, of course, other factors provide incentive to move as well. The PCs’ opponents will need to have powers that benefit from movement, and this is very easy to do. Very broadly, all attacks can be either area-of-effects, ranged attacks, or melee attacks. Just make sure that the opponents have 2 of these options available to them, and they maneuver around to use the one that is most optimal for their current target. For example, no one wants to stand toe-toe with Borgik the Bold Barbarian; they’ll run to the back and try to throw things at the knight instead. However, against Inpy the Intelligent Invoker they’ll want to try and get into melee. Given this pattern of behaviour, if you imagine the actions that are likely to be taken by PCs and their opponents on any of the above tavern maps, a back-and-forth or circular motion throughout the tavern seems quite likely.

The concerns about game balance and grids I raised in the previous Grid Based Combat post still apply.  However, balance can be judged over multiple encounters, instead of just with one single map.  I suggest that you simply eye-ball the distances involved after the map is made.  If the map is short enough that ranged characters are at a disadvantage, make a note to make a longer map next time.  If there aren’t any choke points to help slow, heavy hitting, “tanky” characters, then make sure a map next time has a potent choke point.  If you follow this guide and make asymmetrical maps, you’ll almost always have a choke point.  Finally, if the map and the opponents powers encourage them to spread out, make sure to include a confined space later so that the area-of-effect wielding wizard is still potent.  Just make sure that over the course of the campaign everyone has a map that is suitable to their strengths, and it will usually be okay.

The next post on Grids will be an instructional on how to imply room-like structure when there aren’t actually any rooms, by using the concept of “negative space.”  This lets the GM create cool encounter maps outside!  Since most of the world is outside, this could be useful.

Exactly Exploration: Hidden Stashes and Forbidden Secrets

earth-1Part of the fun of exploring in a game is finding useful things.  It’s exciting to be the person who discovers buried treasure, hidden supply caches, forgotten scrolls, prophetic scribblings, or hidden lore.  This kind of excitement is not part of my previous post for exactly exploration, and I will touch on it now.  This is a post about immediate rewards to exploration, and is inspired by 4X strategy games.

4X games feature exploration as one of their core elements. When a player explores a new location, there are a few reasons the new location could be useful. Of these rewards, one of them is always building a base. This is a long term investment in a region, and has predictable rewards. My previous post for exactly exploration is about joining a community, which is similarly a long term investment with predicable rewards.  Sure, building a base gives access to natural resources and manufacturing facilities, but a PC doesn’t need those things.  A PC needs to develop, grow, and change.  Joining a community is a steady supply of resources for character growth, just as a base is a steady supply of resources for an army in a 4X game.  However, the players will often not want to settle down, or at least will want to see multiple places before deciding where they’ll settle down. 4X games have other options when exploring, which most notably include:

  • Rapid short term gain, that provides no long term bonus. Examples: hunting mindworms for energy-credit rewards in Alpha Centauri, mining ships in Space Empires
  • Gambling on immediate bonuses that last throughout the game. Examples: Alien Artifacts in Alpha Centauri and Space Empires, Supply Pods in Alpha Centauri that provide immediate improvement to existing bases.

So, lets look at these two alternative rewards to exploration, how they work in computer games, and adjust them for use in a tabletop game.  Keep in mind throughout all of this that joining a community is always another option.  I feel the three options together make for a well rounded and diverse set of choices.  In comparison, Only using two of them is limiting character development, setting development, and player agency.

Immediate, Short Term Gain

The chief advantage of immediate, short term gain is that a player can capitalize on it to make a long term gain. This imposes on the GM a particular form to adhere to. There needs to be an objective that is too difficult for the player right now. The rapid, short term gain allows the players to succeed at tasks that would otherwise be too difficult for them, but is lost in the process. Consumable equipment, such as potions or explosives, thus makes the most sense as the short term reward. Equipment rewards tend to be pretty easy to do, so I won’t go into the short term reward any further. The narrative for acquiring them can be scavenging, finding rare materials, treasure hunting, or anything else of which you can think.

The main problem for this kind of approach is that you need to make an opponent that the players have no hope of overcoming without this equipment. This end-goal is separate from the exploration. In 4X games, this is spending the resources found littered throughout the map on rapidly building a military, and conquering some neighbouring cities. More peacefully inclined players might find some skill-puzzle it relates to.

I can think of two ways to set up the end-objective for the equipment. I will call them “classic” and “new-school.”

Classic is very simple: there are bad guys who are too powerful for the PCs. The PCs know they cannot win. With the help of the new equipment, they might be able to do it. It’s a classic “get the Holy Sword of Demon Bane before invading the abyssal fortress” set up. The common pitfall of this approach is that the PCs might think they are strong enough to invade the abyssal fortress without the Holy Sword of Demon Bane. Then a big chunk of the party dies, and the rest run away.

The “new school” alternative involves less work for the GM (which is always a plus for me), and shifts the burden of creativity onto the PCs (which some players love and some players hate). Instead of making the found equipment consumable, provide a bonus reward to a player who gives it away to an NPC. The player needs to justify why the item will be useful to the NPC, express what they expect the consequences of this item belonging to the new NPC to be, and also make sure that giving it away makes sense in character. For example, lets suppose the PCs steal a spaceship in a sci fi game. The GM says “you guys can use this spaceship all you want, but if you can find someone to give it away to, and have a good reason, you get 10 character points.” One PC says they want to give it to some refugees, so they can find a peaceful planet far away to live on. Another PC says they want to give to some freedom fighters, who will use the fusion reactor to make weapons, and attack the Evil Empire. Regardless of what the PCs decide on, the PCs have just come up with their own adventure seeds, and turned what is a short term gain (equipment) into a long term gain (character points).

Remember, however, that PCs might fail at turning a short term gain into a long term gain. This is important, because if the PCs want a guaranteed long term gain they have plan on making a long term investment (which means joining a community, in this case). Ergo, whomever the PCs give their new found item to, a complication must present itself along the way.

There’s no reason a GM couldn’t use both the “classic” and “new school” methods at once. In fact, a common trick for TV Shows is to have the main character pursuing a way to overcome some incredible obstacle, but every time they find an opportunity they give it up because they are generous to the locals. This is used in episodic shows so that the main character doesn’t actually get any close to their season-long objective until the season finale. In an RPG this can be used to make the characters explore the world and do “side quests” until they are ready to do their main mission.

Gambling for Permanent Benefits

Gambling for permanent benefits is limited by its unreliability. Unlike the temporary gains, when a player wins a gamble the reward is immediate and lasting. What makes sense to me is a reward of knowledge, which is a perfect reason to give XP or character points. The strange parts of this knowledge, from the point of game design, is that it is acquired by chance. Usually information in an RPG is carefully paced out to keep the plot moving forward. Since this is random, nothing necessary to the plot can be in it.

The information in the gamble could be almost anything, but I like the idea of coming up with a “myth arc.” A myth arc is a term for a story that exists more within the setting and between sessions. A normal arc exists between the characters and their actions. In the X-Files, any information they acquire about the alien invasion is part of the myth arc. In the Forgotten Realms, the players would go on all kinds of adventures, and these adventures would be framed in campaigns. However, the historical changes of the setting had their own plot, which only sometimes mattered to the campaign as a whole. These history-spanning plots formed myth arcs. Generally speaking, the setting’s ancient history, more recent history, and rumours about possible events in the future all imply a cogent story for the world. The implied stories across the whole universe of Faerun are myth arcs. Examples include the cycles of divine power, the conflict between the elves and drow, and the yuan-ti and their civilizations continued influence throughout history. These ongoing stories are used mostly to frame the campaign the players and GM are doing, and add some context.

To make a myth arc, make a story that is so long it’s scope is more about history and the progress of civilization than the act of any individual. Put some of the story in the past, some as current events, and some are predictions about the future. Every time the PCs learn something about this story, they get some bonus experience or character points.

Finding the clues is the part where gambling comes in. The GM just needs to pick the odds of a clue being present.  For example, I’d probably say that each location has a 20% chance of having a clue in it.  I’d roll in secret every time the players go to a new place.  If they spend some time looking for clues, and the results came up with a clue, they could find one.

Choosing Between the Rewards

The set of options here have significant impact on how PCs receive their rewards: one is a sure thing, one requires skill and involves taking risks, and one is a complete gamble. Giving the players some choices is great, but there is a problem: it creates an incentive for the PCs to split up.  The PCs get the best rewards if one looks for the short term gain, one looks for the clue, and the remaining players attempt to join the community.

Splitting up is not necessariy a problem. It creates difficulty mostly because certain types of scenes require a large amount of time to play. Combats can take hours, role-playing scenes can take minutes, puzzles take somewhere in between. There probably won’t be any problems if the GM makes a short-hand version of combat for when the party is split up. Some players will hate that idea, but I think they’ll be tolerant of the idea if a GM explains to them that to play a normal combat the whole party needs to be present, or else some people have nothing to do for a whole hour.

Splitting up will be especially beneficial if the game has a lot of “coopetition” between the players. I talked about coopetition in my article on Player versus Player games.

Another possibility, however, is to make sure that the short-term equipment reward or knowledge reward would also be of value within the community that a PC might try and join. That way, the players can all go exploring together, return to town together, and then choose which reward is most suitable for their character and play style.

A variant on the above method is to make it so that the players don’t know which reward they will have an opportunity to claim. When the PCs go somewhere new, they have the choice to pursue an option provided by the GM, or move on. Everytime the PCs choose to not take a reward they have earned, they get a “credit.” When the opportunity presents itself for the option they do want, they can spend multiple credits to make the reward proportionally bigger. I wouldn’t want to use this idea because it would allow a player to join a community rapidly enough that there wasn’t any opportunity for the player to role-play their character adapting to the new environment, but it works very well for balancing short-term rewards and gambles.

Finally, the GM may want to limit how much of the story is spent exploring. You may note that, in-spite of all the effort I’ve put into it, the Exactly Exploration articles still just amount to a guide for GMs to create game sessions about interacting with the setting. This provides no information about the plot. These could be used along with a normal RPG plot, and only a small chunk of the session is used on exploration and the related rewards. In such a case, it probably doesn’t matter if the PCs split up, stick together, or compete with one another. It will only end up taking a small amount of time, so there’s no point worrying about it.

The Size of the Rewards

Determining the size of the rewards is difficult, because the mechanics for rewards varies from game system to game system. Joining a community should be the benchmark reward, because it is the most stable. Calculate the value of the perks of membership, then determine how long it will take for the PCs to achieve full membership. Dive the former by the latter, and the result is a base “point value per session.” If the PCs manage to capitalize on the short term gain, and thus turn it into a long term gain, it should be worth at least twice as much as the point value/session. If they don’t capitalize on the short term gain, it will just make things easier for a short period of time and then be gone. Whatever the odds are for the gamble, make sure the reward is large enough to make it a reasonable gamble. For example, if there’s only a 20% chance of getting a reward, it should be five times larger than the point value per session.

That being said, if you’re using GURPS, the training and job rules last over a period of in-universe time. That means to determine the point value/session the GM will need to decide on a time frame. If the players keep track of how often they pick to gamble or a short term advantage, if the GM decides they want to shorten or extend the campaign length the players can have their rewards adjusted for the ratio.

Some players might want to never gamble, and parties or GMs might be concerned about a player “falling behind.” If this is the case, everyone can keep track of how often they’ve gambled and lost. When they finally win, their reward is increased so that their point total is as big as if they had won all the gambles they lost. If the players are using this, however, make sure that the value of the gamble is equal to the point value/session. The gambling is changed to be about when they get the reward, instead of whether or not they get the reward. I like this idea a lot. It means that players can get a “sure thing” that is more player controlled than joining a community, but players might still choose to join because the benefits are immediate.

Tying These Rewards Into Exploration

Tying these into a narrative that involves exploration is easy. Before the PCs explore, they need to learn a total of 3 details about the area they are in:

  • what friendly community is around?

  • where could there be hidden treasure?

  • where would they be able to discover new and amazing things?

These can be used as hooks to get the players to keep exploring new areas. The characters’ particular skills and the players’ play-style preferences might be a factor in what they choose to look for, also. This ensures the players choice is informed, makes sense in-character, and is fun for everybody out-of-character.

I’ve already suggested using visual supports during exploration games. This will allow you to imply the answers to these question through a quickly sketched map, and thus avoid large amounts of GM Exposition. Just keep it in mind; it’s a real time saver.

Happy Birthday, Brother

I have a rule: don’t tell people stories about my RPGs.  Especially if they end with “and then I rolled a really improbable result and everything was hilarious!”  Sometimes the stories are great, but usually they are just stories about dice.

Today, I break that rule because it’s my brother’s birthday.  He made his first character with my usual group of gamers about 5 years ago.  His character was a big-hearted badass named Aries Sarcee, so named because he was based off of Apollo Cree from the Rocky movies.  First name=greek god, last name=a native american tribe.  I know that, deep down, my brother wanted someone else to make a PC who was equally badass.  Together they would rung along the beach, laughing, hugging, and wearing goofy tank tops.

Aries was born in a high-tech underground bunker after the modern world was consumed in a nuclear holocaust.  His character got kicked out of his bunker for beating too many people up.  He loved to fight, and was quite fond of explosives.  This might sound like a stupid, frivolous idea, but I insisted that everyone base their characters’ personalities around a desire for mastery of certain skills.  They came from a highly technocratic society.  The chief form of leisure, and a person’s only purpose in society, was to develop mastery of their chosen skills for the good of the bunker.  Unfortunately, the kind of person who chooses to master brawling, heavy weapons, and powered armour (instead of, say mechanics or botany) might have a slight predisposition towards violence.  He was well intentioned, and mostly fought because it is fun and sportsmanlike to fight, but he got into a bit of trouble, and was exiled.

When Aries left the bunker he wanted one thing: to find a suit of power armour.  He loved power armour.  Powered armour had a built in jetpack (nevermind that he didn’t have the jetpack skill) and rocket launchers (nevermind that he was trained for heavy machine guns). My brother knew he couldn’t use those things well at all.  Out of character, we all knew he would have been better off with some kind of lighter armour, but Aries thought powered armour was really cool.

The party spent their time exploring the post apocalyptic wasteland and making contact with other societies that survived The Bomb.  It took a long time because they started out on foot, then they stole some horses from a group of raiders.  They met a variety of strange but tolerable societies, and one terrible, high tech, fascist regime.

I figured that in a post apocyptic game the most important piece of equipment the party can get is a sweet ride.  They start off with horses, maybe get a motorcycle, but eventually they should have a full on battle-car with flamethrowers and missiles and a rocket-engine.  I figured I’d set that up by giving the PCs the chance to salvage an armoured car from a junk yard.  You know, the kind of vehicle used for transporting money.  The catch was that the post-apocalyptic fascist regime had claimed the junkyard and all salvage rights therein.  The PCs were already messing with their plans, so they stole the armoured car, and proceeded to chase down the fascists.  Some of them got run over, some of them got gunned down.  Guns were blazing.

I, as the GM, could tell this encounter was turning out to be too easy, so I had two fascists appear on top of a nearby building.  They jumped on top of the armoured car.  Most of the PCs were in the back, shooting out the open doors.  My brother asked “is there a river gorge or canyon around here?” and being a good GM I said “yes, but that’s where the fascists are most densely camped.”  Aries  says to the rest of the party  “alright boys, time to get out.”

The other PCs bail out the back, and he decides he’s going to ride the truck over the side of the gorge, and crash through all the fascists while he’s at it.  I’m not happy about this.  I gave them the armoured truck because it’s cool to be post apocalyptic heroes who travel from town to town, righting wrongs, fighting villains, and living out of an armoured truck.  So, since I already had some villains on the roof, I figured they’ll try and take over the truck.  Once my brother defeats them normally, he’ll come to his senses and stop his crazy plan.

Aries beat them all right.  His character was a master of martial arts, and he mopped the floor with them.  I asked “are you going to stop the car now?  You could make a clean break for it.”  he said “NOT ENOUGH TIME!” and gunned the gas.  He drove through the fascist camp, climbed onto the roof of the truck, and jumped off the back “Indiana Jones Style” as the vehicle went flying into the cliff.

None of the players were annoyed about losing the armoured car.  Easy come, easy go.  My brother snorted with derision, and said “why would I want an armoured car.  When I find my power armour, it’ll have a jetpack.”

I gave up on arguing with him, and knew the campaign had gone on long enough that he should finally find his power armour.  They infiltrated the fascists high tech secret base, and learned that this group had a technocratic structure much like the bunker.  Here, however, combat skills were of paramount importance.  Within a few hours of recruitment, Aries challenged the leader of an elite attack squadron.  He won, of course, and with his new position came power armour.  Then they sabotaged the fascists nuclear reactor and ran out of there.

My brother could tell the game was building to a climatic ending where the fate of the world would be decided.  I like that kind of scene, and my brother knew it.  I also liked the armoured car, and my brother knew that.  My brother has a way of expressing brotherly love by messing up my plans.

So, for the final session, they were in the world’s first fusion plant.  It was ready to be started up when the nuclear war started, and it has been laying dormant, waiting, ever since.  The PCs could see the fascists were trying to salvage something from the building, so they snuck int to see what was going on.  Inside, they found a super computer housing an AI, who told them that the fusion plant, if activated, would provide huge amounts of power to the world, but the fascists were instead using it to start a new era of nuclear proliferation.  Then the fascists found them, and the PCs were cornered in the main computer room.

Aries decided it was time to use everything in his power armour.  First was his missile launcher.  As I said before, he wasn’t trained in missile launchers.  He blasted the computers and instruments all to pieces, but because missiles in Alternity are pretty dang good he still killed all his opponents.

Next came the jet pack.  He rammed right into an elite fascist soldier (also in powered armour), and then proceeded to beat the tar out of him while they flew down the hallway, grappling all the way.  It wasn’t the beating that killed the fascist, though.  They hit a wall.  Aries barely survived, the elite soldier died, and the good guys rose from the smoke and rubble to find they were completely surrounded.

A nice long firefight ensued.  Towards the end, the PCs were clearly winning, and had made their way to a catwalk above a warehouse.  The remaining fascists were on the level  beneath them.  Aries pointed at their commanding officer, turned his jetpack on, and launched himself at him.

I’m not the sort to penalize style, especially if the PCs are clearly winning anyways, so I decided I’d end the fight right there.  I say “You fly superman-style, fist first, into him.  His face is liquified under your rocket-punch.”

“What?  I didn’t roll.”  my brother says.

I remind him that he is not trained in jet pack use.  He has only a 20% chance to successfully steer.  The fight is basically won anyways, but he insisted that he wants to roll.  “This is not just for style” he says.

Aries flew into the floor, and ended up being a smear on the pavement.  “At least he died doing what he loves.” one of the other players quipped.  My brother agreed, and felt that this was the best ending for his character.

And, in the end, the post apocalyptic world didn’t get back electricity.  Aries blew up all the computers and the AI.  None of the PCs seemed too dissapointed that ultimately the heroes didn’t help anybody, because at least they stopped the fascists from getting nuclear weapons.  I agreed, but not starting a nuclear war still seemed to be an unusually low standard for a team of traveling heroes.

Stupid.  Stupid never Changes.

Example of Exactly Exploration: The Scroungers Meet the Birders

This is an example of joining a community. It’s continuing with my previous example campaign using a Post Apocalyptic World. Completing this portion took only 15 minutes! Editing my point form notes for the blog took substantially longer, mind you.

The Steps:

  1. the players are useless because they lack some necessary skills. An NPC will be provided who sees their potential and will help them be useful. The PCs will need to learn these skills if they are to reach the third step. Ignore that previous sentence if using a class-based game; skill advancement is not flexible enough in class-based games.
  2. The players are useful, so they go on missions. If they manage to adhere to the norms of the community while doing so, they can progress to the third step.
  3. The players join the community. This won’t happen in a single session, so I don’t need to prepare a symbolic joining (ie. marriage, adoption, or religious initiation) yet. However, the players will need to know what they can be trained in if they join the community, so they know the rewards of membership. That way they can make an informed decision about how to spend their time.
  4. Take Initiative within the Community. Once a player completes step 3, I’ll ask them if there’s anything special they want to do within the community. The question is open ended and vague, to allow the player to have as much room to take initiative as they want. This won’t happen for at least a few sessions.

The Community

The community is called the Birders. They live in a bird sanctuary. They have diesel generators that power their homes, and grow their own food. They go scavenging for generator parts, pipes, etc. Their cultural rituals feature birds quite prominently. The have some technolically advanced skills and scientifically advanced knowledge, but only if it relates to wild birds or their uses. For example, bird poop can be very useful for organic chemistry. Different species poop has highly varrying properties. They’ll make use of it when treating leather, making gunpowder, and distilling bio-diesel.

Step 1: The PCs are Useless

The Birders have a society where everybody makes use of of the following skills:

Chemistry: Everyone is expected to have some understanding of handling and mixing chemicals. Some people know enough to refine various organic chemicals, but most people know more about procedure and less about theory.

Gardening: Everyone is expected to participate in the community’s gardens.

Naturalist: Everyone can identify birds and plants. They think there is something deficient in a person who can’t.

Observation: A necessary skill for monitoring wildlife, and being prepared if raiders have moved into their sanctuary.

For a helpful NPC, I’ll make a young man named Tod who considers himself a mighty warrior. He has seen how successful the Scroungers are, and considers them a threat. He sees this as both an opportunity to befriend and learn from some Scroungers, to ensure the survival of his home. He’ll act kind of macho, but be easily intimidated by the PCs if any of them stand up to him.

Step 2: the PCs are Useful

If the players choose to invest some time here, the abilities they need to use when solving problems are:

  • Combat: Stealthy fighting, and ambushes. They fight like birds of prey, swooping out of nowhere onto their sunsuspecting victims.
  • Role-Playing: Speaking kind of melodically is considered a sign of respect. Because birds sing. This is less strange than it sounds; slight changes in pitch are used to provide emphasis or emotional quality to spoken english (at least where I’m from). Also, some languages are tonal languages.
  • Skill Puzzles: Do not disrupt the fragile, recovering ecology of the world. Ideally, show some reverance or even help it along. Players could do this with how a player’s actions are described, but I’ll try and set up problems where wildlife and plants are obstacles that can either be destroyed easily or circumvented with difficulty.

This society will provide two missions this session, and I’ll come out with :

  • Salvage some tools from the local city, since this town doesn’t make it’s own. The building will be falling apart and has plants growing inside, from the first floor up through the ceiling. Navigating this hazardous environment can be done while showing respect to nature, or by just cutting through everything in your way. As usual, I think using a doodle of the location will make this more open ended and amusing for everybody.
  • Retrieve a ceremonial pistol, decorated with bird stuff, from a group of raiders in the region.

Returning after completing either mission will lead to an RP scene, wherein the PCs can use skills to negotiate a higher reward with the local Elder.  This provides an opportunity for role-playing and give charismatic characters a chance to use their interpersonal skills.

The PCs will be paid with the three things the town can make themselves: ammunition, food, and fuel.  All of these will be valuable trade goods.

Step 3: The PCs become Members

If a PC becomes a full members, they have access to training and jobs. Training will be available for players who want to improve any of the skills that are necessary for membership, and also stealth. They will also have the option to do regular village work during downtime between adventures. Use the standard GURPS rules for jobs to determine payment, but there’s plenty of time before players fully join and have adequate downtime to get paid.  The details other than training are not necessary until later.  Training is the most important reward.

Step 4 won’t happen this session.

A Concern Going Forward

I am concerned that jobs and training will need the story to be paced a particular way in order to be a meaningful reward. I am unsure how much downtime will be needed. Contrasting this reward with alternatives will be done when I look at 4x games, as I need to make a few decisions about the rewards for actions that don’t involve joining the society. Then, the various options available to a player will need to be balanced, but still present very different kinds of rewards.

Regardless, this portion of session design was very quick: only about 15 minutes. Coupled with the other part, I’ve been working on a session for 45 minutes in total, and have one option fleshed out enough to be useful.  I suppose I need some kind of abilities drawn up for the Raiders too, but that’s quick and easy so long as you already know all the rules.

Exactly Exploration: Creating Character Change Through Settings

02a Omi-san Anjin-sanTo examine how characters change in response to the setting, I decided to use movies that are supposed to be about people adapting to a new setting. To that end, I looked broadly at movies I call “culture dramas” . I looked especially closely at the miniseries Shogun. From Shogun I identified a pattern in how characters change in response to the setting. This pattern is repeated in other culture dramas, like Dances With Wolves or The Last Samurai.

I would like to say that Culture Dramas, especially old ones like A Man Called Horse, are sometimes considered racist. Sometimes they have individual scenes that are quite racist, but as a whole each culture drama is about humans welcoming outsiders. The best of them are about positive cultural exchanges, sharing, and learning. Shogun is such an example.

Character Progression from Foreigner to Member

I will spare you a plot synopsis of Shogun, and get straight to my analysis of culture dramas. The foreigner (the protagonist) goes through 4 stages in their interaction with the locals:

  1. Uselessness
  2. Usefulness
  3. Belonging
  4. Initiative

In the 1st stage, the foreigner needs significant assistance to complete simple tasks. Obstacles can often be principally social. Language and etiquette are the most obvious examples. However, social convention can present obstacles in other ways. For example, some professions require people to own their own tools, others do not. A skilled welder who doesn’t own their own welding equipment will not be treated very seriously. Degrees of specialization can also vary. Some machinist repair their own machines; some factories hire millwrights for that. If a machinist can’t repair their machines in a place where they are expected to, they’ll seem like a bit of a tool (that pun was intentional). Finally, there are skills that have nothing to do with a person’s job, but are normal to possess. Reading is a good example, but that can be lumped into the language category. The vast majority of male youth in Canada have at least a passing familiarity with video games, and a teenage male who does not play them might have a difficult time fitting in. Skills of this sort often have to do with “normal entertainment” within a given community. That gives us four categories of obstacle, and only one is required to make a character useless:

  1. Language
  2. Etiquette
  3. Over/under-specialization
  4. Entertainment Skills

The usefulness stage is very simple, but has a catch. The foreigner is able to be useful, but only because a local is helping the character. If the foreigner can’t speak the locals’ language, the local who helps them is capable of translating. If the character keeps offending the locals, perhaps a religious leader will tell everyone to be more patient. In game terms, PCs make themselves useful in the most exciting of all ways: completing quests. This is mostly like normal games, but I’d want to make a few adjustments to include what I’ve learned from 4X games.

The belonging stage is where a character finally becomes a full fledged member of a community. This can only happen if they overcome the obstacle that set them apart as foreigners in the first place. This is often marked by a particular event relating to family: marriage, adoption, or religious rite. Marriage is often to the local that is helping them. Adoption in this kind of fiction is normally an old authority figure declaring the foreigner their heir. A religious rite will often be quite gruesome, such as in A Man Called Horse. This is important because belonging comes with a price. Marriage or adoption entail clear and ongoing obligations. In real life, religions come with obligations also, but in fiction these obligations are often minimal. A gruesome and difficult ritual makes the cost more present.

The last stage, initiative, is where the foreigner gains the power to pursue their own objectives within their adopted society. This is often a denouement in the story, as it shows that the foreigner has been able to integrate into society in a self-affirming manner. This is a good ending for an RPG because it allows the PC to continue adventuring.

Somewhere in this plot-line, the Foreigner is forced to choose between their new and their old homeland. This is optional in an RPG, however, because forcing a character to choose where their loyalties lie will often serve as a climactic way to end an entire campaign.

Playing the Steps and Earning Rewards

The reward to overcoming a character’s uselessness is the opportunity to participate in quests to prove one’s usefulness. Overcoming uselessness needs to be easy: a quick RP scene that establishes what obstacle makes the PC useless, has some bystanders mock the PC, and then have an NPC step forward to help. It shouldn’t really last more than five minutes of table time. A cursory examination of the community should make it clear what the benefits of membership are. This allows the PCs to decide if they want to put in the effort to become a member, or not.

Proving one’s usefulness is done by completing some tasks. After each task, the PC gets a reward that is normal for any quest (usually money and XP). The helpful NPC will also criticize the PC for anything that deviates from how a member of their community would do it. If the PC overcomes the obstacles in a manner that fits in with the local culture, they make one step towards membership.

In most of my games, I try to include a combination of combats, RP scenes, and skill-based puzzles. Skill-based puzzles need some adjustment in certain game systems so that everyone can participate, particularly for fighters in 3.x games. If you are using these 3 types of challenges also, make a distinctive element from the local community that can be incorporated into each one. Using Shogun as an example, I’d use the following points:

  • Combat: swordsmanship.

  • RP: dutifulness that verges on submission

  • Skill: trickery, but only to overcome an enemy; never for benefiting oneself.

Once the player has participated in one of each type of obstacle, and done so in a manner that uses the local distinctive elements, the GM can offer the PC a chance to gain membership. In order to gain full membership, the character needs to overcome the obstacle that made them useless in the first place without the help of an NPC. For example, if the NPC is a translator, the PC needs to learn the local language. The benefit of membership ought to be substantial. In Pathfinder, I would offer an NPC boon comparable to the power of a magic item. In GURPS, training (improvement through study, B292) and jobs (B516) are valuable. This comes with an ongoing obligation, however. Cementing this obligation and membership is done with a ceremony: marriage, adoption, or religious initiation. At this point, a character is a full member, and gains the benefits mentioned early on.

Taking initiative is a natural follow-up if the campaign continues: the character continues adventuring, but is now interested in the good they can do their new home. The alternative is to retire the character, who now lives as a normal local in the new community. Don’t punish a player who wants to retire their character; it shows that they were truly invested in becoming a part of the community, and that’s exactly what this is attempting to achieve. Their new character should be made at the same level or with the same number of character points.

But what if this Place Sucks?

Not all the players will want to become members in the same place. Sometimes no one will like the place. A player ought to be fully in control of how their character changes, within the limits imposed by the game’s genre. They may prefer to not join, or they may not want to have their character change to fit into the location. This is fine.

Becoming a member in a place requires a large investment from a player, but has clear and predictable benefits. Alternative ways of gaining benefits from locations and exploration are also possible. To look at a wider variety of ways to gain game benefits from locations and exploration, I’m going to look at the kind of games that I feel do this the best: 4x Strategy games. Then the challenge becomes finding a way to have all the players participating at the same time, even though they are trying to do different things. These topics will be addressed in a future post.