Dragons and Detectives: Making Reasoning Part of Play

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arthur: You have said very negative things about mysteries in RPGs, mr. B4n4n4h4mm0ck. I can find no fault in your condemnations, so will you please offer advice.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: I certainly will, good friend Arthur. Are you familiar with Socrates?

Arthur: I cannot say I am.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: Then allow me to instruct you. Socrates was a philosopher, and there is much historical evidence that he existed, but we can never know much about him. Plato used him as a character in his dialogues, and in those dialogues all we can really know is that Socrates represented Plato’s ideas.

Arthur: If that is true, then why do we speak of Socrates at all? And what does this have to do with mysteries in RPGs?

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: There is one answer for both of your questions: the Socratic Seminar. A Socratic seminar is a discussion between multiple people, wherein a question is raised. The members of the discussion then provide answers and challenge each others answers, in the hopes that they will all come to a better understanding together. This is how Socrates behaves in Plato’s dialogues (at least the so called “early dialogues”).

Arthur: You need not explain any more, B4n4n4h4mm0ck. I can see how this would apply to a mystery. As the role of the detective must be played by a group of players in an RPG, all reasoning about the clues and mystery must be done socially if it is to include everyone. It is, of course, good and right for an RPG to allow all players to participate. As such, the reasoning must be done out-loud. Having the detective like reasoning take the form of a Socratic Seminar makes this possible. However, I can imagine some shortcomings.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: Do continue, Arthur.

Arthur: I can imagine players will often become highly argumentative or protective of their pet theories.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: Screw you, you ignorant peacock!

Arthur: Just like you just did, my good friend B4n4n4h4mm0ck.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: I apologize, Arthur. Perhaps we can find a way around this?

Socratic Seminars in RPGs

To make reasoning a social activity at the gaming table, the GM will need to set aside some time for in-character reasoning. To do this, the players will need to already have all the clues they need to begin making hypotheses. Then, they have an in-character discussion where they raise multiple hypotheses. A hypothesis is an explanation for all the clues. Ideally, there will be as many hypotheses as players.

The second step is to start crossing off hypotheses that are inconsistent with certain clues or just seem highly implausible. This is accomplished by players challenging each others hypotheses. In the end, the remaining hypotheses are assumed to be true, in order to make more research or investigation possible.

A very undesirable outcome would be if players hold on to their pet theories after they’ve been effectively disproved. Any readers of my blog may be able to guess at how I’d prevent this: a structured reward system! I will show you how I come up with one.

The Game System

The targeted behaviour is that players are too attached to their own theories. A targeted behaviour is the behaviour that I am aiming to alter in some way. In this case, I want to decrease the frequency and intensity of the behaviour.

My chosen way to use a reward system is to reward the absence of the targeted behaviour. To make this easier, we’re going to use another strategy from therapy: increasing the number of opportunities to exhibit the desired absence of behaviour.

The first step, then, is to create this opportunity by making as many hypotheses that are easily disprovable as possible. This will be easy. Players get five minutes to brainstorm, and each player needs to write their own ideas. This might be too much time, it might not be enough. The specific amount of time will need to be adjusted for the game group. This might be more successful the players express this out of character.

Now our goal is to reward the player who gets the most ideas disproved, but only if they also embrace one of the working theories. This means the players now go talk amongst themselves, and attempt to disprove their various ideas. When the dust has settled, each player may announce which of the remaining hypotheses they feel is most plausible. In many cases this may be the hypotheses that is the least implausible, but that’s good enough. Once a player has chosen which of the remaining hypotheses they prefer to pursue, the player counts how many of their hypotheses have been disproved. The player who has counted the most disproved hypotheses earns a reward.

It strikes me that earning uses of serendipity (the GURPS advantage) seems appropriate, because making the most of serendipity requires lots of in-universe logic. This creates a mechanical award that works with the same kind of thinking that rewards good brainstorming and participation in the dialogue. However, a reward more like good luck (a different GURPS advantage) has a more straightforward mechanical benefit that requires less creativity, which would make it more motivating for players who find it hard to participate in the socratic seminar.

More Discussion

Arthur: It seems that your ideas will be effective for making reasoning part of play. However, this is all a little abstract.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: That is a fair criticism. I think it seems abstract only because, without clues to analyze, we are talking only about a general process.

Arthur: Perhaps you would consider instructing me on what kind of clues, and how to pace it out over the course of a campaign session.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: Perhaps I will, but not today. It is time for us to retire to the garden.

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Dragons and Detectives: Mysteries in RPGs

I’ve played a lot of games of D&D where the GM has described the game as a mystery.  In every game, the players (myself included) showed a remarkable disinterest in the mystery.  We were instead interested in other things, like overcoming traps, killing monsters, or role-playing scenes.  Sometimes the GM lamented that we didn’t care about the plot.  In other campaigns the GM attempted to integrate their plot into what we were interested in.  The latter approach was able to save the game, so good on those GMs, but that’s not what I’m concerned about today.  I am trying to understand why this has happened in every single mystery game that I’ve had the opportunity to play in.

I think the answer is simple: those campaigns weren’t actually mysteries.

A mystery novel is an intellectual sport.  It is a race between the detective and the reader, where the reader attempts to piece all the clues together before the detective does.  The authors job is to pace out the information and the detective’s progress in such a way that it is a fair competition.  Ideally, the reader will figure out what really happened mere sentences before it is revealed explicitly in the text.  The key feature of a mystery is not the need to acquire information, but the act of reasoning using the information that is provided.

Integrating the act of reasoning into a game actually takes a substantial amount of working to make it part of play.  It’s much more difficult than it sounds, and I haven’t played in a game that succeeded in changing a game session sufficiently to accomplish this goal.  However, I’ve also never played in a game where the GM actually set out to accomplish this.

Fake Mysteries

The campaigns I played in that were “mysteries” were a lot like most computer RPGs.  The players needed to acquire a piece of information to advance the plot, but did not need to do much reasoning about it.  The information is a maguffin, and the PCs pursue it because they have to.  To call that approach a “mystery” is like calling Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a mystery.

Lets take a look at Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a bit more closely, in case you don’t remember the plot (spoilers):

  1. Indiana’s dad is missing, apparently kidnapped.  He was researching the holy grail in italy at the time.
  2. Indiana goes to italy, and meets people.  He finds out that his father either found or was very close to finding the name of a city on a map in a hidden crypt.
  3. Indiana gets attacked by a dude from a secret society.  It turns out the dude is actually a good guy, and, upon learning that Indiana is not a bad guy, tells him where his dad is.
  4. Indiana rescues his dad.  His dad wants his diary, but nazis have it.
  5. Indiana gets the diary.  In the diary is a map with no names.  Indiana found the names in Italy.  Now they can go find the holy grail.
  6. They go get the Holy Grail, and they fight Nazis all the way.

Although the need that drove the plot forward is the need to acquire various pieces of information (except for step 6), there is never any need to reason about that information.  It is the same in computer RPGs that use a “mystery” as a way to drive the plot forward.  It is the same in the “mystery” campaigns I played in.

This is not to say that using information as a Maguffin in an RPG is bad.  It is a staple of adventure fiction (like the Indiana Jones stories), and I am quite fond of that genre.  It is, however, not a mystery story.  I also quite enjoy some police procedurals, like The Wire, but they are also not mysteries.  The main problem comes from GMs mistakenly believing that they are making an engaging mystery game, when all they are doing is making an adventure game where acquiring some information is one step on the plot.  Players might enjoy the plot, but they cannot be engaged with something they can barely interact with.

Expecting players to care about a Maguffin is really silly.  Imagine there is a demon rampaging across the countryside, and the demon can only be defeated by The Legendary Sword of Supreme Holiness.  A ragtag group of heroes (the PCs) embark on a great quest to find The Sword.  Presumably the players don’t care about the sword (although their characters do).  The players care about the quest, and everything they get to do on the quest.

Now, compare that to this story: A terrible demon that can only be defeated if the PCs discover who performed the terrible magickal ritual that summoned it.  The PCs are a bunch of ragtag heroes who go on a quest to learn the name of that person.  You will note that these stories are almost exactly the same!  Replacing The Sword with a piece of information doesn’t provide any more opportunity to the players to be engaged by the plot.  The plot isn’t what needs to change to make a mystery; the play needs to change.

Real Mysteries are Hard

The point to draw from all this is that a mystery game isn’t about having a story where the players need to discover a bunch of information.  A mystery game is a game where the players need to reason, theorize, hypothesize, predict, and test.  It requires giving the players large amounts of agency, red herrings to investigate, and clues that can be tied together with multiple cogent theories.  The plot is about presenting new information and events that allow the players to disprove some theories, make slight modifications to others, and even create some brand new ones.  This all needs to happen as an interactive part of play, and progress at a sufficient pace to maintain excitement.  It is very difficult to do.

There are two kinds of stories that are usually mysteries that I want to analyze for use in roleplaying: Detective Fiction and Thrillers.  I’ll write more on those soon.  I plan on coming up with some easily replicable patterns to make mystery-play easier.

Exactly Exploration Revised: Figures of Speech as Part of a Setting

3rhzqtLets say a player has joined some weird community they found off in the wild reaches of the campaign setting. They’ve adopted their values and their methods. The player’s decisions are all clearly reflective of their new home. This is good for an exploration game, but it has limitations.

Sometimes, the values or methods of their new home have nothing to do with what is currently happening in a game. This is especially likely if different players have joined different communities. It may be difficult, in this situation, for a player to include elements from their adopted home.

Fortunately, players are almost always able to describe what the character does. The players can also speak in character while they take their actions. In either case, the player may make use of figures of speech to include their new perspective in scenes where it would otherwise be difficult.

Of course, the GM can use figures of speech too. A good GM leads by example, after all, but for the GM there is less need. Every time the GM includes a particular place and its people, it will presumably be relevant to the immediate plot, and thus be relevant to decisions and problems. NPCs will especially benefit form using figures of speech if they are encountered away from their home. It’s also important, however, for the GM to play each NPC to at least the standard they would expect the players to aim for.

Figures of Speech:

I’ve picked out three categories of figures of speech. Each society will also need at least one theme to flesh out the categories, but this will often be evident when given a society.

  1. Ambiguous Statements
  2. Metaphor
  3. Metonymy

The key part of an ambiguous statement is that it refers to something specific that the speaker would rather not talk about directly. An example in modern english is “the deed” to refer to anything from sex to murder. Using an ambiguous statement to reflect something about a fictional culture’s values is tricky, because the statement is purposefully ambiguous. However, refusing to talk about a specific act implies a fair amount about that beliefs prescribed within that culture.

Metaphor lets the speaker relate one act or object to an act or object of cultural significance, by virtue of a shared property. A simile also works, but I prefer metaphor because I feel it takes a little bit more thought to understand another person’s metaphors. Metaphor runs the danger of being confusing, but I feel it is more engaging to figure out what a metaphor means. Here’s a silly metaphor of my own devising: referring to a home run as a “critical hit.” The similar property is that both are as good a result as a person could get, but other than that they are nothing alike. To use metaphor, take the theme of the society, and think of a property that fits that theme, and then apply it to something similar but not within that theme. For example, lets take a post-apocalyptic group of raiders. Perhaps they have accepted that they are prosperous thanks to murder. A PC who is also a raider might refer to a large amount of trade goods as “a murder.” The shared property between murder and the trade goods is wealth, but other than that they have nothing in common.

Metonymy is the use of a name for a thing to stand in for something else. For example, Hollywood is used to refer to the american movie industry, but literally refers to a place. Using metonymy is great for an exploration game: it lets people, locations, and history to be referenced all over the place. Metaphor requires a shared property, but all that metonymy requires is a shared association. Odds are good in an RPG that each location is known for at least one distinctive thing. Whenever that thing comes up somewhere else, it can be referred to by that place name. For example, if the PCs visited a town of raiders called Scumland, and the PCs meet a group of raiders somewhere else, they might refer to the other raiders as Scumland also. Famous people or important historical events could also be used.

Including Figures of Speech into a Game

A while back I suggested rewarding players for interacting with features of the setting, to encourage them to use in-universe reasoning. Here’s the article: https://creativegamemaster.wordpress.com/2013/06/22/exactly-exploration-delivering-setting-information-and-related-bonuses/

Figures of speech fit into this for dialogues and role-playing scenes, instead of problem solving. If the GM really wants to encourage players to use these a lot, I would suggest allowing the PC to earn uses of the “innovative” bonus. In GURPS, this would be Serendipity. This will not significantly effect game balance, but still provide many novel opportunities to a poetically inclined player who helps encourage immersion in the setting. I feel it is appropriate to reward solid immersion in the setting with more control over the setting.

How to begin designing a campaign

I ran a lot of very unusual role-playing games in my day. I’ve ran PvP intrigue games, fetch.phpaction-movie style games where the players succeeded at every action they took, dramas, a heist game that was mostly about open ended puzzles, highly tactical combat games, disaster movie games, etc. All these styles of game require the players and the GM to use different genre conventions, scenes, types of action, and (usually) game systems. Some of my players loved a given campaign, some of them hated a given campaign.  A lot of work needs to go into the early stages of these games, to make sure that it’s fun for all the participants.

With that in mind, I learn to ask myself the following questions when starting a new campaign.

First, I establish my objectives:

  1. What is my initial goal?
  2. What will be fun for me (the GM)?
  3. What will be fun for the players?

Then, I think about implementation:

  1. What kind of action supports the objectives?
  2. What rules system best supports the action and objectives?
  3. Are there any house rules or supplemental reward systems that will help the rules system meet the objectives.

Then, I think about scheduling:

  1. How much time is required to complete the action at least once in a single session?
  2. How much time will be required for planning between sessions?
  3. What homework will the players have, if any?
  4. What is the optimal number of players per session?

Then I think about the finishing touches:

  1. What is the story?
  2. Who are the PCs?

Now I will show you some examples, using two of my previous campaigns:

Example 1: Blood and Water

Objectives:

  1. To create a low fantasy political intrigue game reminiscent of A Song of Ice and Fire (A Game of Thrones).
  2. Creating a dynamic and highly reactive setting.
  3. Outsmarting each other. Seeing a plan come to fruition.

Implementation:

  1. Role-playing scenes where players can publicly agree/disagree on goals and plans, secret scenes where players can sabotage each other. The game will have to be competitive for outsmarting each other to be fun.
  2. A skill based game, so that the players could have a wide variety of advantages and disadvantages over each other, and thus create more dynamic competition. GURPS seems appropriate.
  3. A system for pacing out public actions and secret actions. Public actions will largely be constructive and helpful, secret actions will either be very selfish or treacherous in nature.

Scheduling:

  1. After I worked out a system for alternating between public actions and secret actions, I decided it takes at least 3.5 hours for all the players to make their schemes, interfere with each others schemes, and eventually have one come out on top.
  2. Only one hour of prep work. Much of the complexity during a session comes from the players’ choices.
  3. None
  4. 4, but 3-7 will be workable.

The finishing touches:

  1. It’s a fantasy kingdom. There is an apocalyptic prophecy, and there are natural disasters, war, and plagues in other parts of the world. The sudden arrival of the refugees throws society into disorder, and the players recognize this as an opportunity to advance themselves.
  2. The players are artistocrats in a desert kingdom. The players must design both their characters and their families. For example, one character might be from a minor noble family that “ascended” from the middle class due to their incredible wealth and organized marriages. Another might have been appointed their noble status by earning a particular position of office. Another might be from a venerable and respected noble family that traces its lineage to the earliest days of the kingdom.

Example 2: Rocht you like a Hurricane

Objective:

  1. Run a pathfinder game where the supernatural is alienating and creepy, not transcendental or divine.
  2. Story writing, learning the pathfinder system.
  3. Fighting, characterization, clever solutions (ie. outsmarting the GM)

Implementation:

  1. Action scenes, scenes to discuss and plan ways around problems.
  2. Pathfinder supports these adequately. Multiple quest options and multiple methods will be presented at the same time, to give the players to discuss.  This provides more opportunity for characterization and clever solutions.
  3. I feel a reward system will help players be more succesful at defining their characters and remaining consistent during play (ie. characterization).

Scheduling:

  1. 1 hour per fight, and half an hour for RPing and clever solutions. I’ll plan on having two of these per session, for a total of 3 hours.
  2. I’ll need about 4 hours a week to plan.
  3. I will encourage players to write stories about their characters, but it’s not mandatory.
  4. 4, but more or less is acceptable.

The Finishing Touches:

  1. The Kingdom of Rocht is in turmoil! Ten years ago, a war over who would succeed the Old King Caine was fought and nearly destroyed the country. The losers were sent into exile, one to a mercantile city state, and one into the northern wildlands. Now declaring himself the “king” of the wildlands, the prince has asked for a crusade to defeat and convert the locals. The middle class (composed of guilds and merchants) have come to idealize the prince sent into exile in the merchant city, and are preparing to seize control from the queen. The queen has angered the aristocracy by centralizing authority under a royal bureaucracy, instead of allowing her vassals to rule. Against this backdrop of political division and treachery, supernatural evils older than any of the humanoid species threaten the kingdom. The barbarians of the wildlands survive by pacifying terrible monsters with offerings that seem like nothing but empty superstition and folklore to the crusaders. The city is overcome by a plague that brings people’s dreams to life, and a dream is the souls desire untamed by restraint and reason. It is a terrible curse! Spies have infiltrated the country through the merchants, and are stealing ancient relics and bringing them back to the merchant city… but for what?
  2. This is a dark and gritty setting. Players motives should not be defined in terms of good and evil, but in terms of less abstract beliefs. A character who is an honourable soldier or knight is not necessarily a good person; they are just a disciplined person who believes in personal responsibility. A trickster is not a chaotic good archetype, but a con-man who chooses to take advantage of the gullible for their own benefit or amusement. However, this character is also not evil; they presumably believe in a “buyer beware” kind of ethic, where each individual is responsible for their own choices even if they are being manipulated by others.

This is my first attempt to participate in a blog carnival.  I hope people find it helpful.  Here is the blog that is hosting the carnival:  http://www.rpggm.com/blog/2013/08/01/august-blog-carnival-campaign-creation/

Drama and Dragons: the end result

I have decided that for my intense role-playing game I will be using Mage: the Ascension, revised edition. I’ll be using all the material from the Drama and Dragons and some older ideas:

  1. A reward system that implicitly creates a tutorial for role-playing.
  2. Status as a mechanic and as the reward for in-universe actions. The method for acquiring will introduce a “soft PVP” where the players are rewarded for solving problems faster than other players.
  3. Scheduling based mostly around short periods of on-line play. Guidelines for what players may do with and without the GM will be needed. A short form for the players to fill out will be needed so the GM can keep track of everything that happened.
  4. Pressure from the environment to help keep the players working together, if necessary.
  5. Exploring deep topics has been integrated into the role-playing reward system.

I am revisiting reward systems in Mage: the Ascension. My goal is to create a guide and reward system for role playing that doesn’t use any XP at all, that also fits how a fractured game schedule impacts play.

Here is the Diamond of Roleplaying:

Prep 1

Acknowledge Responsibility

Prep 2

Define Personality

Write Backstory

Tier 1

Voice-Act Emotions

Posture, Gestures, and Props

In Character Reflection

Tier 2

Imply Personality in a Desctiption

Imply Actions with Dialogue and Sound Effects

Initiate In Character Conversation with another PC

Role-play

Low Status

Role-play

High status

Tier 3

Mediate a discussion between two PCs Use “platform building” to include elements from Backstory Resolve a conflict by going from high status to low status

Tier 4

Roleplay the development of a new ability

As Low status, persuade a high status PC

Tier 5

“Deep Topic” Objective

(essence)

Here are some clarifying points

Prep 1 and 2

All prep work must be completed before the PC may join the campaign.

Acknowledge Responsibility: Each player is partially responsible for maintaining the mood of the game and ensuring that the players and the GM are having fun. Being granted the options to build a platform gives the player control over how their history impacts play. High and low status allow PCs to have control over each other. These give each player authority in areas where players normally have none. There is obvious potential for abuse, so playing in this game requires that players are mindful of how their behaviour impacts other players.

To ensure that players are mindful of this, each player must write something they will do to use either platform or status to improve the game. This also serves to make sure that the player has the minimal understanding of improvised theater concepts. This can be short: even one sentence is sufficient.

Define Personality: In a game of Mage: the Ascension, this is done as part of character creation. Personality refers to Nature, Demeanor, Essence, and Resonance. Players ought to be aware that traits will be more important than most games.

Write Backstory: This may be point form, if the player prefers.

Tier 1

Tier 1 can be done during play, or in writing in the form of a journal entry. A journal entry must be e-mailed to the GM and all the players.

Voice Act Emotions: When done in written form, this is accomplished by writing dialogue in which a player’s choice of words and sentence structure implies an emotion. This is often harder than speaking with a voice that carries a particular emotion.

Posture, Gestures, and Props: This is when a player uses body language, gestures, and real world objects to convey information about their character’s emotions, beliefs, or actions. When done in written form, this is a description of body language. Once again, it is probably easier to do this during a session than in writing.

In Character Reflection: This is when a character thinks about recent plot events in a campaign, and comments on it. The commentary may be in the form of a dialogue with other PCs, or it may be written down in a journal. This is perhaps the only one that is easier to write than it is to do during a session.

Tiers 2- 4

Tiers 2-4 all can only be done during a session. They cannot be done with a journal.

Imply Personality in a Description: this is when the player adds description to what they’re doing in a manner that implies one of the components of their personality. For example, a Mage with a demeanor of Curmudgeon is fixing a car and says “when the hell was the last time you took this piece of crap in?”

Imply Actions with Dialogue and Sound Effects: Instead of telling everyone what you’re PC is doing, act it out by making declarative statements and sound effects. This is how action is often portrayed in radio plays: https://creativegamemaster.wordpress.com/2013/06/09/radio-play-3-action-scenes/

Initiate In Character Conversation with Another PC: It is easy to respond in character. Being the first person to begin talking in character is harder. Choosing a topic that will get other PCs to respond is harder still. If a PC manages to succesfully initiate a conversation, they have done something difficult and a little bit intimidating.

Role-play High and Low status: Status is assigned according to some rules detailed below.

Mediate a Discussion between two PCs: Adding a third participant to a conversation greatly increases the complexity of the social behaviour. Being the third person is particularly difficult, and is thus in a relatively high tier. The character might be attempting to encourage both sides to see each others’ points of view, supporting one side but sympathetic to another, the “rope” in a verbal tug of war, or arbitrating the dispute.

Role-play the Development of a New Ability: An increase in a skill is worth drawing attention to. If a character was a crappy fighter, but spent some points on increasing their brawl skill, be sure to draw attention to this. This can be done during a normal use of the ability, by initiating a conversation with another PC, by practicing with another PC, or anything else you can think of.

As Low Status, Persuade a High Status: Back in my sociology called, the Prof called this “the Doctor-Nurse Effect.” It is how a low status character presents their ideas and opinions to a higher status character, so that it does not infringe on the higher status character’s authority. Examples include making suggestions, and asking for permission to do what the character knows is the right course of action.

Using platform building and going from high to low status are self explanatory, if the theater concepts they are drawn from are understood.

Tier 5

In my article on Deep Topics, I suggested that players think of whether they want their objective to change the world for the better, support something worthwhile, or destroy something undesirable. These categories are so similar to the way essences impact seekings that that step is unnecessary. If a character has a Dynamic essence, they need to make change. If they have a Pattern essence, they need to support something. If they have Primal essence, they need to destroy or eliminate something.

However, I want there to be two dimensions to a character’s seeking: material and mental. In M:tA there is a spirit world, and there are beings made up of pure thought, and there are platonic forms that actually exist in a transcending realm of some kind. The game’s universe is well set up to make it possible to play internal changes to a character, instead of implying them through subtext. So, I’ve made a Seeking check list:

  1. Identify Deep Topic

  2. Player uses their essence to help them narrow down what they can do that relates to the topic.

  3. Player confirms the objective by contacting their avatar, a spirit, a mentor, etc. For the sake seekings only, a character can contact their avatar with some kind of big ritual appropriate to their Tradition. Hermetics would do something with chanting and glyphs, cultists would expand their mind with alcohol and dance until they become possessed by their avatar, etc. Every mage will have at least one point in avatar by now, but some players will have more options if they have spirit magic or points invested in Mentor.

  4. Player must use magic to help address this problem.

  5. The GM ensures a complication occurs along the way that can be solved in an open ended way.

  6. The player chooses to responed rationally, emotionally, or by seeking out an authority.

  7. The way the player chooses to solve the issue may result in acquiring more resonance.

  8. The player highlights the way they changed to other players while role-playing.

  9. The PC may choose to gain either 1 dot in Arete or 1 dot in a sphere. Arete is worth more experience points, but the spheres will often be more useful immediately and later.

Rewards for Each Tier

  • The first time a PC completes tier 1, they gain 1 dot in Avatar.

  • The first time a PC completes tier 2, they gain 1 dot in resources, allies, or influence. They are limited to mundane allies who don’t even know the supernatural world exists.

  • The first time a PC completes tier 3, they gain 1 dot of resonance. The PC may choose where it applies.

  • The first time a PC completes tier 4, they gain 1 dot in resources, allies, or infleunce. They are limited to mundane allies who don’t even know the supernatural world exists.

  • When a PC completes tier 5, the GM will provide them with a seeking. The reward for completing a seeking is normally an increase in Arete, but the player may choose to increase a sphere instead, if they prefer. This is because the theme of worldy versus transcendant concerns are often represented mechanically by making choices between acquiring more Arete or Spheres, and this method of acquiring seekings will likely be much faster than spending experience points.

As the game goes on, the background rewards will change. In this stage, the goal is to set up PCs so that resonance and backgrounds are the mechanical reflections of the conflict between a Mage’s mundane concerns and magical concerns. As the game continues, the various backgrounds from Guide to the Traditions will be added in, which provide a way to resolve this conflict more or less for good. For example, a mage with high ranks in chantry and a large cult doesn’t necessarily need to keep a normal job anymore.

This will also change the internal conflict to be about acquiring supernatural power versus acquiring wisdom. This conflict will be ongoing, and there are no mechanics that resolve this conflict. It will instead intensify or diminish based on player actions alone.

Status Game

Acquiring High Status

When two or more players are present during a session, high status is acquired at the beginning of the session with competing rolls. Usually, this will be charisma+leadership, but many other skills are likely. Sometimes it makes sense for it to be charisma+influence. On rare occasions it might use appearance. Using magic to gain high status is frowned upon, as it would need to be some kind of mind control. Using magic to boost one’s own skills is acceptable.

Manipulation and social skills may be used to acquire high status, when a character has low status.

Status and Problem Solving

When confronted with an obstacle, the way a PC responds determines whether or not they switch status. A low status character becomes high status by overcoming the obstacle, or helping to overcome the obstacle. A character with high status must give directions and be obeyed by another PC to maintain their status. If they fail to do this while overcoming the obstacle, they become low status.

An obstacle is an event imposed by the GM that forces a response from the players or forces the players to abandon their current plans.

Acquiring High Status Between Session

If at the end of a session a PC has the support of the broader supernatural community in the region where the session ended, then they begin the next session with high status. That community must be able to act on the party in some way. For example, a PC who has all the vampires on their side might gain high status when in a city, but won’t have high status if they are hanging out in the country with werewolves.

If there is an expert on a topic related to the PCs’ current mission, and that expert is supporting a PC, that PC begins the next session with high status.

This is to encourage the PCs to do some politicking during their downtime.

Failure to Play Status

If a character fails to act according to their assigned status during in-character dialogue, they may either try again or they lose a point of temporary willpower.

Scheduling Rules

Resonance and Backgrounds

Once per session, when a PC uses a mundane background, they must also identify the resonance that is closest in dot value to the background. If there is a tie, the player may choose which one to use. The player rolls the number of dots in the background and the number of dots in resonance. If there are more successes for the background, then it works normally. If there are more successes for resonance, the resonance has a disastrous side effect that interferes with the use of the background. If there is an equal number of successes for both, there is a near miss as the resonance almost causes a disaster, but the mage manages to avert it.

A player may spend willpower on the background or resonance rolls. A player may not spend willpower on both; that is counterproductive.

If a PC doesn’t use any backgrounds during a session, this section does not apply.

Resonance can also negatively effect supernatural backgrounds that are social, such as mentor, node, or wonder. Nodes and wonders can be confiscated. Resonance has -3 to its dice pool to effect these, however, so mages will very seldom have to worry about this.

A player may suggest what form the resonance takes when it interferes with their character’s background, but the GM has has final say. The GM is encouraged to be mean-spirited.

Fractured Gaming

If the player is unable to get someone to role-play with them in a week (probably due to conflicting schedules) they may write a journal entry about their day-to-day life.

When the GM is not present, multiple players may meet up to role-play making plans, an in-character discussion, or a magical ritual, so long as their meeting occurs in a place that is safe. The rules for how to do rituals are pretty specific, so I don’t think there is much room to abuse the system without a GM present. Players are expected to be honest when it comes to using backgrounds and resonance rolls, and when rolling for the rituals they are performing. They must keep a log, which will minimally detail what backgrounds were used, what resonance was rolled, what mundane abilities were used as part of the ritual, what modifiers effected the difficulty of the arete roll, the number of succcesses, and the intended magickal effect. Note that the GM must read the log before the effects can be determined.

When the GM is present, the players will be presented with a goal that focuses on an investigation. They will be presented with obstacles related to survival in a harsh environment, or escape from terrible monsters.

Alternately, a player may make a request for a particular type of mission. For example, some Order of Hermes mages like to hunt vampires and use their blood as tass. It’s against the Traditions’ rules, but that doesn’t stop them. This is also the best way to include a seeking.

When all the players are present, they will be able to combine their clues. This will hopefully help them solve the mystery, and take action.

Form

Players must submit the following information by e-mail to the GM to schedule their sessions:

Objective: (what the PCs are doing)

Players Attending: (list the players)

GM Presence: (confirm whether or not they want the GM to be present, if it is optional. If the GM is present for something that does not require the GM’s presence, the players can expect some complications to occur)

Date and Time:

Resonance and Background Check: (everyone must confirm they did these checks)

Ritual Planning: (if applicable, the players should describe what their ritual will accomplish and how, so that the GM can give them some guidelines on how many successes they’ll need)

Environment and Action

Survival Pressure

Survival pressure can take many forms. Since the plot involves supernatural creatures and spirits causing trouble, I’ll be able to easily and plausibly introduce a very wide variety of obstacles. Players can expect the majority of obstacles to be reminiscent of scenes in disaster movies. These will be presented as open ended challenges

Open Ended Problems and Creative Solutions

M:tA excels at allowing players to be creative with problem solving, and I intend to use that to the fullest extent of my ability as a GM. Environmental obstacles will be open ended problems. Social and violent problems often seem very immediate in role-playing games, but this will be avoided.

Players must receive enough of a warning that they have time to pursue their own solutions to problems. This amount of time will vary from as little as a Fighting will only occur rarely; most violent encounters the players will know about in advance, and they will be able to use the full flexibility afforded by their skill set and magic rituals to deal with the problem before a combat scene erupts.

Note that the obstacles end up forcing the players to deal with them, so “open ended” does not mean that the player chooses their own objective. It is open-ended in how the PCs solve a problem, not what the problems they choose to address are. Player drive objectives and plot points are not going to be discouraged, but those need to be made by collaborating with the GM. Seekings are largely player driven with this model, and will give the GM plenty of inspiration about how to make player-specific plots and objectives.

Plot and Deep Ideas

The game will be set in the Yukon. The players will be a cabal of mages sent to investigate what appears to be a group of nodes appearing spontaneously in the wilderness. The wilderness is largely outside the control of the technocracy, and these nodes could be very useful to the Traditions. However, the spirits in the region have given warnings to the traditions that these nodes are not safe. The PCs are the magi chosen to investigate.

Character Creation

The players will need to think of their own “cover” for being in the north. Eco-tourism and jobs related to farming, mining, or lumber are reasonable options. The game will not feature a lot of travel to new regions, so the player’s cover will need to allow them to stay for a long time, but it will feature a lot of travel within the Yukon. The Yukon is a big place, with many impediments to travel. A super rich corporate executive might need to have a private jet to make all their meetings and keep their job, but that same plane won’t be useful getting to the farthest northern villages. A lumberjack with a powerful truck and a snowmobile might be better equipped for that.

Players may not take the Questing essence. The questing essence is redundant in this game, since the seekings contain discrete objectives already with this house rule.

White Wolf Lore

Players do not need to know a lot about white wolf lore to play in this game. They need to know what each of the traditions are, what the technocracy is (no knowledge of its component groups is required), and that other supernatural beings exist (but no details about them). Any additional required information can be given from skill checks, if it comes up in the course of play.

Players with ample knowledge of the white wolf lore are encouraged to make their characters have ties to the material with which they are most familiar. This is done with merits: medium, kinfolk, ghoul, etc. A player who knows a lot about the technocracy may want to take two traditions (with the appropriate merit) and be both a technocrat and a mage.

Players who know very little about white wolf lore and wants to learn more during play is encouraged to begin play with 4 or 5 dots in mentor. They should make their character eager to partake in tradition politics and favour trading, so there are lots of reasons for them to interact with and learn secrets about the broader supernatural world.

Deep Ideas

This game is well set up to explore broad moral or social themes, and player choices during character creation will imply many more deep ideas. Mage is almost implicitly about elitism: mages and technocrats alike are more capable than other humans, and exploring what responsibility (if any) mages have to mundane humans is a part of the game.

Other obvious themes for deep ideas comes from the setting. Rural society differs greatly from urban society, and the majority of mages (like humans) live in cities. This can introduce a variety of political, economic, and social ideas. The large amount of wilderness introduces all kinds of topics drawn from environmental ethics. The large Native American population allows the game to explore topics relating to modern colonialism.

Player backgrounds don’t need to play into these ideas. They can easily come up with ideas that they would prefer to explore.

Drama and Dragons: Deep Role-playing

My friend has recently told me that instead of “intense” role-playing he wants “deep” role-playing. Lucky for me, this is almost the same thing! Otherwise, I’d be out a few hours of work. Lets look at how this changes my work.

So far I’ve identified 4 additions to a game to make the roleplaying “intense” (the one about scheduling doesn’t count).I’ve thought about how to foster inter-character conflict and keep it in line. I’ve worked on how to tie reward systems to acting, storytelling, and characterization, instead of overcoming challenges. In past articles, I talked about how to include acting skills in action scenes by imitating radio plays, and using the theater concept of status to add game-like structure to inter-character disagreements. What do I need to add to make role-playing “deep?”

I need to make the players think and learn about “real” topics, not game or theater topics. A game is not an essay, however, so directly addressing deep topics is hard. I need to make it so that play includes these deep topics. I need to make it so that there is sufficient structure so that players can act in a way that encourages reflection or interaction on deep topics.

Defining a Deep Topic

I will define a deep topic as a topic that is sufficiently complex to do the following:

  1. Inspire multiple disagreeing, logically valid, and cogent opinions about the topic

  2. Have moral or value-laden implications

  3. Be interesting to talk about

Players will need to be mature and tolerant. Some topics might be too inflammatory, even for a group of mature and tolerant people, so be careful. I would set some ground rules down for topics I don’t want to touch on. You can work that out with your own group.

Players will also need to understand that their characters are supposed to change over time.

Framework for Interactive Depth

To make the depth playable, instead of just something people can talk about, players need to be able to do stuff that is motivated by their opinion on the topic, learn more about the topic, and change opinions about the topic. The player may end up changing their own character’s opinion, or changing other characters’ opinion, depending on whether the game focuses more on drama or melodrama. I am going to make a framework that requires both. Regardless of whether the game is about social interaction or psychological change, the result will end up being player driven. As such, the GM will need a broad framework that is structured enough to let the players take charge, but specific enough to still be useful.

First, identify the topic.

Example: urban poverty.

Next, use some thematic categories to narrow down the options. I’m going to say that player goals can be about changing things for the better, protecting things that are already good, or getting rid of things that are bad. Many goals in real life actually include all three of these things; changing a lightbulb involves making light where there was darkness, keeping the existing power infrastructure functional, and throwing out the useless lightbulb. However, this isn’t real life; it’s fiction. I feel the thematic categories of change, support, and destruction help narrow things down quite a bit.

Example: Change: help some people set up a squat in an abandoned property. Support: teach in a job-skill training program. Destruction: do some addiction counseling to get rid of addiction problems.

Psychological Change: I’m going to go a bit Aristotelian here: we can enact psychological change by reason, emotion, or authority. It’s a lot like rhetoric! I would probably let a player choose which one they want. The psychological change does not need to reflect a change in their opinion on the topic; it needs to reflect a character’s reaction to the events that occur when they move towards their objective. Psychological change can be represented by: changing personality trait(s), changing abilities in some way, sacrifice or purchase of new equipment. This choice should firmly be the players.

Example: The player is helping the urban poor by establishing a squat. A problem along the way is that the plumbing doesn’t work. The player may respond to this by being very reasonable, and acknowledging that all the work that goes into supplying housing is more complex than they thought. To solve the problem, they either: develop a more thorough personality (perhaps changing a trait to something like “responsible”), learn to do plumbing themselves, or spend some of their money hiring a plumber. Maybe other options will present themselves. If they chose to react highly emotionally or by asking for help from an authority, the way character changes could be different even though the available ways of solving the problem would remain very similar.

Social Interaction: The way a character changes need to be discussed with other players. Role-playing is a social game after all. The player has a responsibility to identify the way their character changed, and showcase it during normal play to everyone else. This requires a lot of acting skills.

Fitting this into the role-playing rewards grid

This replaces “having a character that grows or changes over time” with “responds to a deep topic.” It can probably replace achievable goals also, but only because creating an objective that fits into the categories of goals requires that the goal be achievable in order for it to be useful. However, it might be good to have them separate so that players learn how to make achievable goals first, and then worry about how to fit them into “deep topics” afterwards.

Final Checklist

  1. Identify Deep Topic

  2. Player uses the categories to help them narrow down what they can do that relates to the broad topic.

  3. The GM provices a complication occurs the way that can be solved in an open ended way.

  4. The player chooses to responed rationally, emotionally, or by seeking out an authority.

  5. The way the player chooses to solve the issue results in change to either personality, abilities, or resources.

  6. The player highlights the way they changed to other players while role-playing.

  7. Give the PC a reward.

Closing Thoughts

I’m seriously considering making the intense role-playing game a game of Mage: the Ascension revised edition. With that in mind, I think the reward should be a seeking. Seekings are pretty important in Mage, and could be considered roughly the equivalent of leveling up. With this in mind, a group playing another system could replace XP systems entirely with the role-playing grid if they wanted to. This has the potential to have a very disruptive impact on game balance in a game like D&D, but if the game is principally about drama this won’t matter very much. It will only matter in so far that success rates on skill checks pose a limit to player agency when interacting with the world. Of course, if the game is principally about drama the campaign probably shouldn’t be using a class based system in the first place, as a huge chunk of character generation will be about parts of the game that are peripheral to the main focus of play. Regardless, my next post will be a more or less final account of how I’m adjusting M:tA to work better for “Deep” role-playing.

Drama and Dragons: Campaign Scheduling and “Fractured Games”

This idea began as a suggestion from a friend about how we can work around scheduling problems for my “intense RPing” group. I realized, however, that it actually lends itself very well to drama. I’m calling this scheduling and story writing system “fractured gaming.” It lends itself well to story heavy games, character development heavy games, and games with lots of competition between players. It works for each of these because time is scheduled to use online gaming sessions with only one or two players. This allows the PCs to separate from each other and “do their own thing.” For this same reason, it does not lend itself well to combat heavy games. Combat tends to be a very cooperative part of play that requires many participants, especially in games that have combat roles like in 4e D&D.

Fractured gaming can be thought of as a corollary to episodic and campaign style game structures. In it, there are two types of sessions:

1. Small Group: these consist of 1 to 3 players, and one GM. They occur frequently and are short. I would have 1-3 of these a week, and each would last 30 minutes to 2 hours. I’d plan on giving each player 45 minutes of my time, and they can choose if or how to use it.

2. Large Group: These have all the players (6+) and occur about once a month. They last longer than Small Group sessions, and are probably 3-6 hours long.

Sample Media

Lets talk about the kind of games and stories that I want to learn from while looking at this structure. Since more time can be dedicated to individual characters, character focused stories with an ensemble cast make sense. Three star trek shows did this: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. A variety of super hero cartoons and comic books also used this structure, most notably team shows like Teen Titans or any of the X-Men cartoons. Some shows with ensemble casts didn’t divide their plot lines into distinct episodes, and instead had multiple plots going side by side. Sitcoms like Friends and Cheers are still good examples. Soap operas are also good examples, as are the various action/adventure shows that are most of the way to being a soap opera (The Walking Dead and Lost come to mind). Firefly is probably my favourite example of a show with an ensemble cast, and if we include the Serenity movie as an ending it makes for a suitable example of going from multiple “small group sessions” (ie. the episodes) to one “large group session” (ie. the movie).

I can think of one movie I want to draw special attention to: Lock, Stock, and Two smoking Barrels. There are similarly complex movies from Guy Ritchie, but this one is special because of it’s elaborately large cast. They each have seemingly disconnected scenes, but eventually everyone comes together for one big finale. Hopefully an RPG will be less confusing, and equally as elaborate.

There is one board game that has the players split up and come together very frequently that deserves special attention: Diplomacy. If you haven’t played it, you should try it at least once. If you hate all your friends afterwards, you aren’t the kind of person that should play the game. However, you will get an understanding of how splitting up into pairs to conspire, then coming together for a climatic group event, can be like. That relationship is an important concept for a Fractured Game.

Advantages of a Small Group Session:

A small group session allows PCs to do activities that they wouldn’t do if the entire party was present. To maximize on this advantage, there needs to be a good game-design related reason for an imbalance of information between the PCs. The obvious reason is that the characters might be acting at cross purposes. This entails a certain amount of player versus player competition. Another reason might be that the players have differing interests. For example, if a player has a character history a mile long, and wants to recite an epic poem about his family’s history, it is very likely that at least one of the other players won’t be the slightest bit interested in a lengthy poetry reading. Having the small group sessions allows sessions to be customized more specifically to the tastes of individual players, without worrying as much about alienating others.

With that in mind, small group sessions lend themselves well to a few subgenres of RPGs:

1. Intrigue, due to the ease of secrecy and PvP

2. Drama, thanks to the time that can be set aside for players to (over)act.

  1. Adventure, because important characters who have necessary but not action-focused skills can have short sessions that accentuate their eclectic skill set. Examples of these character types are: the doctor, the scientist, the millionaire philanthropist, the folklorist, the techie, the engineer, the xeno-botanist, etc. Note that adventure is a different genre than action, although there is usually considerable overlap.
  2. Horror, because small group sessions can be used to encourage a feeling of isolation and powerlessness.

The Large Group Session

The large group sessions work like typical game sessions. However, since character focused portions have all occurred during the small group sessions, the large group sessions can focus on group objectives. The time at the large group sessions can focus more on things like combat and team oriented puzzles.

The Large Group sessions provide a purpose for the Small Group sessions. The small group sessions are the preparation work that happens before the group session. The party splits up to make small groups, and does neat missions to prepare for the big mission. The big mission is the Large Group session. This is a formula that is really easy to write narrative for, so I won’t bother talking anymore about it.

Suitable Game Systems

A suitable game system for this kind of scheduling would be able to make use of the various advantages that a Small Group session provides. The game requires a sufficient breadth of in-universe rewards to motivate characters to compete with one another in secret. It also requires some rules that support large degrees of characterization. Finally, it needs to have a lot of skills or abilities that are eclectic. A particularly industrious GM can create house rules for the first two, but it’s too much work to make house rules for the last one. I know of a few systems that meet all of these criteria:

  1. GURPS
  2. Mutants and Masterminds (M&M)
  3. White Wolf Games

M&M and GURPS are the best at including all the required elements. GURPS has a huge list of potential in-universe rewards due to the size of the equipment list and extensive set of social advantages. It also has a really long list of skills, including many that are incredibly eclectic or specialized. The huge list of potential rewards makes it very easy to find the necessary motivations for PCs to do things that are best kept secret, and thus create a bit of intrigue. The wide set of skills allows players to take the game in unusual directions during the small group sessions. GURPS also has a huge list of advantages and disadvantages that effect characters through their mundane, normal lives. Family, routine jobs, friendships, can all come up. This provides ample rules support for situations that are about drama and characterization during the Small Group sessions.

M&M is a super hero game where (in the short term) a player’s goal is to accrue “hero points” that can be spent to get big bonuses when fighting a super villain. Hero points are a token reward system, with the tokens (ie. the hero points) being given out when a character acts in a genre appropriate way. This includes when a player chooses to introduce a heroic complication into a scene. The complications tend to be psychological or social in nature, such as having the super villain attack when the hero is stuck in their secret identity at work. Dealing with the consequences of the complications supports the Drama requirement of Small Group sessions very well. The broad set of skills involved in maintaining a secret identity and the highly customizable rules for designing powers support the eclectic game play requirement. The weakest point of M&M is encouraging intrigue, as super heroes are usually more motivated by justice than by in-universe rewards. There’s ways around this, though: super heroes in comic books end up disliking each other quite frequently. The intrigue would need to be motivated more out of melodramatic interpersonal issues between the heroes than acquiring in-universe rewards, but that could be built into the hero point system also. I would argue that “teaming up with a super hero whom you dislike, and bickering with them at the same time” counts as genre appropriate in super hero teams, and would thus be worth hero points.

The White Wolf games all work well in a similar way to super hero stories: the PCsneed to pretend to be normal human beings a lot of the time. There are rules for rewarding being true one’s personality and goals (Demeanor, Nature, and Willpower). This complements drama quite nicely. There are rules that force players to choose between their mundane lives and supernatural forces (each of which is unique to the specific white wolf game). This creates a wide variety in the conditions under which PCs earn rewards for drama. The specific reward will often be based on whether the character more in line with human concerns (granting will power) or supernatural concerns (granting gnosis, quintessence, etc.). This creates different mechanical rewards based on how a character chooses to resolve their inner conflict. The wide variety allows for conflicting interests between the PCs, and white wolf gamers are known for the intrigue and suspicion they enjoy fostering within their party. The various white wolf games make all kinds of allowances for eclectic skills, and these skills are supposed to be actually important even in a normal game.

Private Life

What these three games have in common is an attempt to make the PCs need to spend time and effort being “normal people” in-between their adventuring. Making a PCs private life seem dramatic might be a bit tough at first, but the set of complications or disadvantages chosen by players will make this a lot easier.

Most of Peter Parker’s internal conflict seems to be from noticing that being Spider-Man is ruining his scholastic/career ambitions and love life. By having time dedicated to him struggling to keep those in order, the significance of his sacrifice becomes clear. In the World of Darkness, going to a 9-5 job as a werewolf isn’t like going to a 9-5 job as a normal human being. Werewolves have an animalistic rage that is simmering just below the surface, and if they blow their cover they will be hunted down. Going to work is more akin to a spy maintaining their cover than a normal day at the office. In GURPS, the settings are often really well developed. The opportunity to play some time in “normal life” is effectively time spent exploring a well-crafted and interesting setting. Life and death may not be on the line, but dignity, money, or a fragile marriage could be. Great stories have been written about less, and GURPS is a system that is really supposed to make a setting come alive.

Party Life

Although a big chunk of the gaming will happen in small group sessions, the time when the Party all gets together is of particular importance. These sessions will focus on the party as a whole, and thus must provide the reason for each of the PCs to ever interact. It provides a unifying plot that will provide the narrative justification to keep all the players coming back. It will provide the mechanical basis for play and advancement. It will provide the conflict that drives character development.

Of the game systems I mentioned today, I feel M&M and GURPS are better suited for fractured gaming than White Wolf games, but only for one reason: when the party all gets together for a large group session, M&M and GURPS are better prepared to handle it. White Wolf, by comparison, has minimal rules for combat or complicated group collaborations. It does have far more support for drama, including melodramatic arguments between PCs, so if the focus of Large Group sessions is interpersonal conflict or acting with some emotional intensity then White Wolf is a good fit.

The Fractured Story and Information

A story in a fractured game is unique in that not all the players are supposed to be present. As such, different groups of PCs end up discovering very different pieces of information about the plot. This can be used cooperatively and competitively.

Using this cooperatively, the small group sessions will reward each participant with a piece of information. This is just “one piece of a puzzle.” In the Large Group Sessions the players all work together to put the puzzle together. Remember to keep the information simple, however. The GM will not want this to turn into the Telephone Game.

Using it competitively is about allowing the PCs to easily make plans that effect other PCs, but the PCs don’t actually get to do anything to each other directly until the group sessions. This means that the Small Group sessions can be used for making secret deals, and spying on other members of the party as they make secret deals. The GM would have a responsibility to make sure that a small amount of information gets leaked, so that the PCs want to use their Small Group sessions for espionage. Instead of the PCs passing secret notes around, they get whole sessions dedicated to their plots.

Keeping a log is a good idea, however, so that (after a suitable delay) players can see what other people chose to do.

Optional GM Presence

If the game has a particularly large amount of cunning treachery, negotiations, deceptions, and skullduggery, the GM doesn’t even need to be present for every single Small Group session. Some might consist of 2 characters negotiating what they want from each other and what they’re going to do, and then they just send the GM an e-mail when they’re done. This would be very similar to Diplomacy. This will encourage all kinds of conspiracies.

Also, if there are two PCs who are just dying to have an argument, talk about their feelings, get into a short (and non-lethal) fist fight, or otherwise do something purely for the sake of role-playing, it won’t need the GM’s presence. They can act it out, make a recording, and share it with everybody for posterity.

Minimally, the GM will need to know that the players met. The GM might not want to know too much about their plans, because it’s fun to be surprised. If the game has some ruthless PvP, though, the GM might insist on knowing. That way, if a player is going to be ganged up on in a particularly heinous way, the GM can leak some kind of warning to them so they are at least a little bit prepared.

Weekly Scheduling:

Here’s an example of how I would handle the scheduling of a fractured game. For each of these, 6-8 players would be acceptable to me.

Super Hero Game (M&M):

Premise: Each PC is a loner super hero (like spider-man or batman). However, they will sometimes need to team up with other heroes.

Week 1: Short introductions where each PC stops a normal crime (ie. no supervillains). The GM does not need to know anything about the PC before this.

GM makes a prop: headlines in a newspaper so that all the super heroes know about each other.

Week 2: PCs need to schedule sessions where they run into each other stopping crimes.

Week 3: PCs run into each other in their secret identities. They may or may not recognize each other.

Week 4: A new supervillain shows up during normal crimes. The PCs are unable to beat him on their own, but will have the opportunity to save innocent lives.

Week 5: First large group session: The PCs gather together to plan a trap for the supervillain.

From here on in, the players will get to choose their small group sessions. Very broadly, they can focus on their secret identities, unique new ways to use their abilities while fighting crime(probably using power array rules), or melodrama between heroes in costume. On occasion, the GM might make a new supervillain show up, and they will all need to team up again.

PvP Intrigue Game (GURPS):

Premise: First contact with an alien species has been made. The PCs are part of a huge international project to study the alien civilization, their technology, and their culture. The political and cultural landscape could potentially be changed dramatically by the findings of this project, so everyone is trying to get involved. Characters could be physicists, theologians, counter-terrorism experts, journalists, national representatives, corporate officials, spies, alien sympathizers, agents from a “human first movement,” etc.

Week 1: The Introduction! The GM presents to each PC a problem, and why their character is involved: who will get the intellectual property on biotech made from alien genetics. Each PC is an expert on a panel, and will give advice to the Directors of Extraterrestrial Affairs, at a meeting in two weeks (in-universe time). During this small sessions, PCs must express their stances on the issue.

Hand Out: each PC will receive an e-mail introducing them to their competition (the other PCs) and their stance on the issue.

Week 2: Sabotage Week! If two PCs meet and have a big argument because they don’t see eye to eye, then the GM will be present when one of those players wants to do something in secret. The GM does not need to attend the first meeting. This will encourage interpersonal conflict, sabotage, and secretly manipulating the Directors of Extraterrestrial Affairs.

Week 3: Bribery Week! The organization each PC represents (whether it is as vague as “scientists” or as precise as “The Russian Orthodox Church”) gives each PC something to bribe other PCs with. PCs are to organize small group sessions to create backroom deals so that one of them will change sides.

Week 4: Espionage Week! The PCs must choose someone they haven’t yet interacted with in a small group session. If they have interacted with everyone, then it’s someone whom they did not use or affect during Sabotage Week or Bribery Week. They must accurately reveal their actions to that player. This may take the form of one of them roleplaying an informant, roleplaying themselves while the other spies on them, or maybe they trust each other in-character enough to talk about it. If scheduling does not permit the players to speak directly to each other, an e-mail will be an acceptable substitute.

Week 5: Large Group Session. The PCs all meet in an official office to attempt to persuade the Directors of Extraterrestrial Affairs to adopt their point of view. Note that unless the PCs organize their own secret meetings before hand, they won’t have time to react to what they learned during Espionage Week.

Additional Rule: Secret Action.: Each week, a player may use one skill or advantage to attempt to do something in secret. This may be a legitimate action like “research the topic we are advising about” or it might be something like “use Observation to see if my opponent does anything blackmail-worthy.” If the PC and the GM can coordinate the time, this can be made more complex than a single check. The reason to make it more complex is to make the process more involved and enjoyable. This presents an opportunity for players to use the wide variety of skills and advantages their characters might have, and will help make a Cardinal a radically different character to play than a counter-intelligence agent.

Horror Game (W:tA):

Premise: Each of the PCs is a werewolf, which means that they need to be a part of the human world and the natural world. There is a lake deep in the wilderness, and some scientists are set up there in a small cabin studying the impact the industry upstream has on the environment. The PCs are here, in secret, to ensure that nobody is killed. However, some kind of monster is here and it kills one of the scientists, and now it’s going to kill the PCs.

Week 1: isolation. The PCs are split up into pairs for small group sessions. Each one is investigating a different area to find out what is going on. Some of the PCs might get attacked, some might not. Their goal is to investigate, and the GM will aim to create a sense of dread. If some PCs end up in a chase scene, everyone will end up even more apart. The PCs will each be very reactive during this week.

Week 2: exploration. The PCs attempt to gather back together, while staying safe from the monster. Unfortunately, it is difficult to hide and find the other PCs at the same time. The GM will need to make scenarios where PCs are forced to just guess if they ought to hide or run. “there is a lonely light ahead of you in the dark woods. What do you do?” PCs might stumble across clues about the monster during this process, and they’ll learn neat tidbits about the location. Remember that a PC must not have enough information to solve problems; they have to guess. Out of character, they may be making their choices based on the kind of scenes and play that are likely to result from their decision.

Week 3: Search and Rescue. PCs who are available at the same time managed to meet up. PCs who are not, did not. They now must attempt to join up, crossing a hostile environment and avoiding a monster. This is where real problem solving starts.

Week 4: Big Group session. The PCs are finally all together, at the same time. They make a plan about how to lure the monster to them, confront the monster, and (hopefully) defeat it. Some of them might die.

GM Homework: Rage, Gnosis, Willpower, and Background rewards. These 4 rewards can cause PCs to act in very different ways during sessions, and are rewarded based (in part) on their choices during sessions. Further, all of these except willpower can have unfortunate side-effects for a character if they get really high. Evaluating if a PC acted in a way that deserves rewards in any of these categories is an important set up for week 5.

Week 5: Normal Life. This is a small group session where the survivors RP a day in their regular life after the encounter with the monster. Their behaviour here will allow them to recover willpower, rage, or gnosis. It also creates an opportunity for high rage or gnosis to interfere with backgrounds. The GM can create scenes so that willpower can be used to help maintain the facade of being a normal human being, such as needing to spend willpower to stop a high rage werewolf from attacking their supervisor. It also provides an opportunity for the PCs to prepare for their next encounter with horrible monsters.

Campaign Progression. As the game goes on, less and less time will be dedicated to frightening play. Eventually, werewolves become monsters themselves in order to better confront the supernatural evils of the world. They are very rarely villains, but they tend to be particularly dark anti-heroes. Part of the goal of the GM homework and the normal life section is to make this gradual transition a part of play. Part of the genius of Werewolf: the Apocalypse is how the mechanics make this transition gradual and part of play.

Eventually, the game will be an adventure story with highly disturbed protagonists. The PCs will end up having wildly different abilities available to them based on whether or not they embraced the war against the wyrm (rage), embraced spiritual harmony (gnosis), or maintained enough self control to be a part of the human world (willpower). Each results in very different characters. Making use of this diversity can be best done with small group sessions featuring open ended puzzles and challenges customized to a PC’s abilities.

Drama and Dragons: Survival Stories and Dramas

Here’s a problem for melodrama games: the PCs need to argue a lot, and still work together. This gets worse, though, if the game is also a legitimate drama. It’s not enough that they argue, they need to have a reason. They need to have a reason to disagree, to lie, to argue, to fight, and to otherwise behave in ways that hurt people’s feelings, and still have a reason to keep working together immediately afterwards. Wouldn’t it be easy for the GM if they could think of one reason that can be their reason for fighting with each other, their reason for mistreating each other, and their reason for working together again afterwards?gilligans_island

Here’s the reason: Survival.

There are 3 types of survival stories that I want to worry about: disaster movies, wilderness survival, and survival horror. My favourite disaster movie is Towering Inferno. A show that is (at least a little bit) about wilderness survival is Lost. An example of Survival Horror is something like The Walking Dead, although I suppose strictly speaking “survival horror” refers to a video game genre. Regardless, the things that separate a survival horror game from an action-adventure game also set Walking Dead apart from an action-drama show. All of these shows feature large casts of characters. Each character is fairly well developed, and their particular set of character traits has a significant impact on the action of the show. The shows are all loaded with interpersonal conflict, to boot.

I’ll look at how a threat to everybody’s survival forces people to both fight amongst themselves and pull back together afterwards. We’ll look at the ramifications of conflict between characters in the form of status; Lost is a great example of that. I’ll look at the common kinds of environmental hazards, and see how they force people to follow the current leader. I’ll look at how preparing for future threats is used to introduce division, and how unexpected threats are used to force the group to work together again.

From all this, it will be possible for an astute reader to switch out wilderness survival with any threat. Some extra work comes with it, but these principles could be used just as much to make an office drama as a zombie apocalypse survival drama. However, since (presumably) every character is motivated to stay alive, using survival genres is easier.

Survival Objectives

In a survival story, the main goal is to escape. However, this goal is often a long ways away. In disaster movies, the characters usually need to get to an evacuation point. In the children’s novel Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, the main character’s goal is to survive until he is rescued. At the start of a zombie apocalypse, everyone just wants to get out of the quarantined zone. This goal is suitable for a campaign long plot arc.

Along the way, other objectives need to be met. Food and shelter are usually the first problems to be overcome, but problems with these things have a tendency to keep popping up over and over again. The characters invariably end up needing medical supplies and weaponry at some point. In an RPG, odds are good that weapons can be considered a need.

Sometimes they need to make new tools themselves (ie. make a new axe), or work raw materials into a useful form (ie. turn a tree into lumber for building a cabin). These provide suitable goals for most individual sessions. Consider “for want of a nail” style plots.

On occasion, the psychological needs of the group come up. Festivals and leisure will often require some work to set up, and contribute to group cohesion. Faith and religion are useful for keeping group morale up. Sometimes art or music seems to help. Note that while these meet psychological needs of individuals, they are met by accomplishing social objectives.

It seems to me, then, that there are 4 objectives to rotate through in a survival game:

  1. Needs

  2. Tools

  3. Social Needs

  4. Escape Attempt

Disaster Events

While the players are trying to accomplish one of their survival objectives, there are some fairly classic types of environmental problems that can get in their way. Using the environment in this way establishes that survival is difficult. This is important for keeping the PCs working together even when they’re arguing all the time.

Here’s a list, mostly drawn from disaster movies.

  1. Fire

  2. Heights

  3. Drowning

  4. Mechanical/Electrical Malfunction

  5. Wind, Snow, Rain, and Lightning

  6. Poison (usually induces temporary paralysis, not death)

  7. Disease or Dehydration (usually induces weakness and hallucinations, not death)

  8. Rapidly Flowing Water

  9. Fog or Darkness

These kind of obstacles show up while the PCs are trying to achieve their objective. For example, if the PCs are trying to build houses one of them might catch fire, with people inside. If they’re trying to find some flint they can break into an axehead, they might get stuck in a barren avalanche path when a lightning storm moves in. A child might get lost in the woods, and it’s foggy out to boot, during a festival to commemorate their first successful harvest. They go into an abandoned building, and try the elevator, only to get stuck between floors.

To make these problems more open ended and complex than passing a skill check, read these:

Disagreements and Survival Pressure

I’m going to introduce a force that can act on a character called “survival pressure.” This force takes a character with a perfectly reasonable set of beliefs, and causes them to become more extreme in the name of survival. This is used in survival fiction to set up characters as opposites or foils of one another.

A classic example is a pro-society character and a pro-independence character. The pro-social character is always in favour of the good of the group, to the point of doing some questionable things to keep everyone in line. Minor examples of wrongdoings by pro-society characters include lying to the public and confiscating items for communal use. Pro-independence characters tend to defend the dignity of individuals and emphasize how a smaller number of experts contribute to the survival of the group. The pro-independence characters always have a specialized and very useful skill set that others lack, because otherwise they’d just be selfish. Their common wrongdoings are refusing to help in group efforts, often on the grounds that their unique abilities are better used elsewhere, or just being generally elitist.

Survival pressure can also be used to make one very reasonable point of view be rapidly abandoned by the majority of people. Any principle could be abandoned on the grounds that it facilitates survival. It’s a classic case of ends-justifying-the-means, and depending on a character’s point of view they may or may not agree that the ends do, in fact, justify the means.

Survival pressure is used largely to create moral dilemmas. Resolutions often don’t so much resolve the dilemma so much as they establish who has authority at that time. The ongoing conflicts between Jack, John, and Sawyer in the first two seasons of Lost are excellent examples of this. With this in mind, I’m going to want to include the theater concept of status as part of play.  For more on status:

Mechanics to represent survival pressure will need to be established in such a game, but these can often be behind the GM Screen. The game should be easier when the PCs give in to survival pressure. When PCs fail, characters will die, so it is important for the PCs to sometimes give in. I would consider tying this in to however I end up using status.

In order for this survival pressure to really present itself, I’d start each session by presenting an objective for the party. For example, they need to find food for everybody. Then, they get to debate about how to go about doing that objective. Lets suppose a PC proposes hunting as a solution. There will need to be some kind of moral disagreement here. I (as the GM) then tell them that the hunting is dangerous, because the wilderness is a dangerous place. The PCs then need to decide whose life to risk. Should it be heroic volunteers only, or should everyone be forced to take their turn? If only a small number of volunteers do it, how will they be compensated for taking on such a risk? Should the elderly or children be prevented from participating? What about women? Should the idea be abandoned in favour of something less risky? should the idea be abandoned in favour of something less divisive?

It will sometimes be the case that the PCs divide into two camps. Each camp supports a different way to achieve an objective. This is an excellent development in this kind of game, as it allows the PCs to race against each other to see who finishes first. In this case, the moral dilemma is still not resolved, but, instead of resolving the social conflict by one character clearly being an authority, the conflict is resolved by whomever is skilled enough to solve it first. It makes a problem become more practical. This actually serves to reduce tensions in a group, by making the conflict less personal.

Pulling Everyone Back Together

Whenever the PCs reach a point where they are about to hurt each other, the GM must send in the riot police. When a riot consists of two groups fighting each other, there’s a surprising tendency for the two groups to gang up on riot police. Only after the riot police are beaten (which doesn’t happen very often) do the rioters turn back on each other.

As a conceit of the genre, the GM can throw in sudden disasters to force the PCs to start cooperating again. Whenever the PCs reach either a complete deadlock or are becoming violent towards one another, one of the disaster events occurs. The PCs cooperate to put it down, and the spirit of cooperation returns.

In order for this cooperation to break a deadlocked party decision, the results of this scenario need to be used to assign or scramble status. I’m not entirely sure how to handle this. It would depend on how high status is won and lost in the first place.

Regret

If a PC, due to low status, ends up agreeing with a plan they disagree with, this is completely acceptable! At a later session, the PC may express regret, embarrassment, shame, etc. By expressing regret, the actions that were inconsistent with their personality are now made consistent. It acknowledges that the character did something they disagree with, and must now live with the consequences. It also provides opportunity for the character to grow and develop, either by reaffirming their principles or by making them consider abandoning the principle they challenged.

As such, being willing to role play regret strikes me as a necessary corollary to using status in a drama game. Players will need to understand how to use regret so that they can maintain consistency in their character’s personality, even when their actions are not that consistent.

Status and Play

For this kind of game, winning high status strikes me as a reward. Defining the conditions under which a person gets high status is thus going to have a major effect on the players’ behaviour. Since status (in this sense of the word) isn’t a part of any RPG system I know of, incorporating it will be tough. I’m going to think about this for a bit, though. It’ll be the next Drama and Dragons post. If any of you have your own ideas about how to do it, just post it in the comments.

Drama and Dragons: Reward Systems for Roleplaying

This is the first work for Drama and Dragons, my work on “intense roleplaying.”  I decided to create a reward system for role playing first because it requires that I define the kind of things I want players to do during the game.  I ended up with a much more elaborate role-playing reward system than I’ve seen in any game I’ve played.  However, I have played games that the basic mechanics alone are so well integrated with roleplaying that the mechanics alone creates ample rewards for all the behaviours I’ve identified as part of role playing.

Behaviour Analysis of Roleplaying

First, “role playing” is a very complex behaviour. Lets begin a list of what goes into it:

  1. Acting, voice acting, speaking in character
  2. Making choices consistent with a character’s personality
  3. Implying through the subtext of a player’s acting, or the subtext of a character’s actions, the character’s personality, morals, motivations or goals.
  4. Creating a rich and detailed character personality
  5. Creating a rich and detailed character history
  6. Creating a campaign journal, to create an in character commentary on the events of the campaign
  7. Having a character’s mechanical play be consistent with their personality and history
  8. Having a character that grows or changes over time
  9. Having a character history that impacts events during play, either through character controlled advantages (like allies) or by working cooperatively with the GM.
  10. Enabling other players to role play more or better

  11. Having discrete, achievable in-character goals, and working towards them during game time.

  12. And probably more.

For a behaviour this complex, “roleplaying” is not well defined enough to be used in a reward mechanic.

A Published, Mainstream Game that does it Right:

Lets look at a system that is very simple, but well defined: Nature, Demeanor, and Willpower rules from the old White Wolf games. They might also be in the new White Wolf games; I never bought the new ones, so I don’t know. They are very specific in how a character gets rewarded for roleplaying.

Willpower is a ressource that can be spent to get automatic successes on skill checks and to succeed at resisting mind-effecting supernatural powers. It is replenished by acting in a manner that is consistent with a character’s Nature: a broad description of that character’s psychological makeup. Most of the time, however, a PC acts according to their demeanor. Their demeanor is chosen from the same list as Nature, but it is merely the face they put on for the public. By combing Nature and Demanor, a character can be a badass with a heart of gold, a class clown who’s actually a complete visionary, or a pubic hero who is actually corrupt to the core. There is no reward for acting according to a player’s demeanor.

This system mostly rewards roleplaying behaviour 3: implying through the subtext of a player’s acting, or the subtext of a character’s actions, the character’s personality, morals, motivations, or goals. However, it works very well for doing that.

The number of ways a character can create a subtext about their character is limited more by the player’s acting ability and the player’s creativity when choosing their actions. It is very open ended, and it is still very well defined. If anyone ever tells you that rewards for roleplaying lead to rote behaviour, tell them to play a campaign of Mage: the Ascension. The proof is in the pudding.

 But I don’t Want to Play White Wolf Games:

Don’t worry, it is very easy to make reward systems for discrete behaviours that involve role-playing. The hard part is combining multiple rewards into a system, while maintaining some degree of elegance. That’s for later, though.

First, I’m going to say that all roleplaying actions fit at least one of the following three categories: acting, character development, or story development. Developing one of these skills makes it easier to develop the others. A character can only be so well developed if the player can’t act, and the player can’t act if the character has no personality. The character can’t change over time if they don’t interact with the plot. Now lets divide the role-playing behaviours into their categories. Some things fit into multiple categories, so I put them in the category that best represents the skill that is used the most.

Acting

Character Development

Story Development

Speaking in character

Creating a Rich Personality

Creating a Rich History

Voice acting to convey emotions

Making choices consistent with a character’s personality

Writing a Campaign Journal

Acting with facial expressions, props, and physical movement

Enabling other players to role play more or better

Using history to impact events during play through collaborating with the GM or using specific rules

Implying Subtext

Having a character that grows or changes over time

Pursuing achievable goals during sessions

Often, the limiting factor on a player’s acting skills is just their comfort. Even though they’re playing with friends, players often feel silly acting. That’s why I divided it up into so many steps. The last step, implying subtext, is the first step that requires a well developed character. It is also the hardest to do, as it relies a great deal on how a player says or does something, not what they say or do.

The first step to developing a character is to give them a personality. The second step is to ensure that all choices are consistent with that personality. This is the simplest way to show off a character’s personality, but it has the drawback of usually being reactive. You may notice that I put “Enabling other players to role play more or better” into the Character Development category. This is because the best way to encourage other players to role play more is to react to their role playing efforts. If Bilbosh the Baritone Bard reacts in-character to Bora the Brawny Barbarian’s actions, how Bilbosh reacts is a great way to further develop and define his personality, and also signifies implicitly that Bora’s actions are significant enough to acknowledge and use during play. PCs can also initiate in-character interactions with other players and accomplish very much the same thing. The big thing to watch out for is that players don’t end up fighting each other for the group’s attention. One drama queen stealing the spotlight from other PCs is not encouraging; it is actually quite discouraging.. The interaction between players presents an opportunity and justification for players to change over time. It allows a players quirks and foibles to be addressed directly. It allows a character to be introduced to new ideas, slowly become accepting of them, and maybe adopt them in the future.

Story development begins with a history, because it can be done mostly independently of other players and the GM. It isn’t very collaborative, so it can be completed at the very beginning of a campaign without any worry about the rest of the players. A campaign journal allows the player to re-describe the events of the campaign, and thus establish their investment in the plot. It also helps the player become more mindful of trends in the plot. This is very easy to do for the same reason a backstory is easy to do: it doesn’t need to be collaborative. However, unless it’s shared with the party it is questionable how much this will have an effect on storytelling or the plot. That’s why there is the next step: impacting events during play. This is for when a player convinces the GM to include a villain from the PC’s past in a mission. This is for when a player uses contacts from their criminal past to find a kidnap victim. This is for when a character who flunked out of wizardry school uses the only spell they ever learned, because the GM was convinced it would be fun to create the perfect situation for that spell.

Accepting where People Fall on the Grid

Some players might be strong enough actors to imply subtext, start each game with a rich personality and a rich history, but don’t interact with the GM or other players at all. Other players hate talking in character, but love everything under the story development category. Their characters can’t interact with others to encourage better roleplaying or foster character change, but they make sure they always act consistently with their established history. Everyone has different degrees of comfort or skill in these three categories. This applies to game masters too.

It’s important to remember that it takes time and effort to get better at any of these, and the GM ought to adjust their expectations. A player who is really good at writing an in character journal can write 250 words of pure poetry in fifteen minutes. A less proficient player will write 1000 words that are far less beautiful in a few hours. Some people can’t put 250 words together if their life depended on it, and that’s okay. I might accept one short paragraph from people. Heck, it could even be all in point form, if someone find writing really tough. The key part is the in-character reflection on the campaign.

With that in mind, remember to adjust expectations for peoples differing abilities. Some players might be skilled enough to skip a step, some might not. Some people may want to stay at a single step until they master it, and others may want to do the minimum on that step and move on quickly. Incorporating this breadth of preference is difficult, but it’s important to respect this so that players have fun.

Defining Grid Squares as Conditions for Rewards

Here is my attempt to define the role playing behaviours in terms that are useful as conditions for rewards. I’ve divided them up into tiers. The first tier doesn’t rely on other skills. The second tier requires tier 1 skills. The third tier requires tier 2 skills. A fourth tier has only one skill in it: having a character that grows or changes over time. Creating a character that evolves naturally over the course of a campaign is probably the hardest thing to accomplish in role-playing. A player has so much less control than a GM, so creating a pleasing character arc is much more difficult than making a pleasing plot line.

Tier 1

Speaking in Character: at least once per session, the player says precisely what they want their character to say.

Creating a rich personality: Define a motivation, a moral or political attitude, and 2 broad traits for a character. These must be kept private from the other players.

A motivation is not a concrete objective; it is a broad motivation for why a character participates in the lifestyle necessary for the game to continue (usually the lifestyle of an adventurer). A moral or political attitude are the beliefs a character has about how they interact with others and evaluate themselves: an honourable character is different than a rebel. Traits are just catch all adjectives about a personality: angry, kind, passionate, creative, analytical, stylish, glamourous.

Creating a character history: Write a short story about a character’s life before the start of the campaign, at least 125 words long, and no more than 10 000 words long.

Tier 2

Voice acting: at least once per session, the player speaks in character in a manner that successfully mimics a particular emotion, status, or role. When tier 3 is unlocked, this is replaced with implying subtext.

Acting: at least once per session, the player uses facial expressions, props, or gestures to replace or accompany speaking in character. When tier 3 is unlocked, this is replaced with implying subtext.

Making choices consistent with a character’s personality: at least once per session, the player chooses an action or describes an action that implies at least part of their rich personality. They may explain why the action implies this out of character, if there is disagreement.

Enabling other players role play more or better: At least once per session, a player responds by speaking in character to any other player who is performing one of the role playing skills.

Writing a campaign journal: No more than once per session, a player may write a journal entry at least 125 words long. It must be from the point of view of their character and comment on the events of the campaign. This must either compare the events of the campaign with the character’s history or make commentary that is consistent with their rich personality.

Use History to impact events During Play: No more than once per session, a player may conspire with the GM to make a part of their character history come up in game. The GM will attempt to include the element in the same session it is brought up, but this may not always be possible. This is redundant in some games and should not be used in games with ample rules support that can replace this. For example, complications in Mutants and Masterminds makes this redundant. Frequency of Appearance on social advantages and flaws makes this redundant in GURPS. When tier 3 is unlocked, this is replaced with pursuing achievable goals in session.

Tier 3

Implying subtext: At least once per session, the player uses voice acting or Acting while accompany an action in game, in such a way that other players respond as per enabling other players to roleplay more or better, and the responding player identifies how this is in line with the first character’s rich personality. This must all be done without the first player stating anything directly about their rich personality. This replaces voice acting and acting.

Pursuing achievable goals in session: The player must submit to the GM 2 goals for their character. These goals must be S.M.A.R.T.: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and on a Timeline. These goals must be consistent with the character’s rich personality and rich history. There must be some cause in the campaign, identified by either writing in a journal or making choices consistent with a character’s personality that has made the character begin to pursue the objective at this particular time. Once the goals have been submitted to the GM, the GM will be certain to incorporate these opportunities to meet these objectives in the course of play.

Tier 4

Having a character that grows or changes over time: The player must have implied subtext successfully about their motivation, moral attitude, and character traits. The player must have pursued an acheivable goal and either succeeded or failed. The player must also identify another PC to whom they have responded in order to enable the other player to roleplay more effectively. Then the player decides to change one of the following: their motivation, moral attitude, or a character trait. Then, when the player first succeeds at implying subtext about their changed trait, they qualify for the reward.

Appropriate Rewards

Over time, I’ve become less and less satisfied with XP as an RP award. So, instead I will take a look at my table from my previous post: https://creativegamemaster.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/reward-systems-in-rpgs-alternative-rewards-to-xp/

I want the players to end up engaging in role play to win Narrative Privileges. However, since this reward is already implicit in roleplaying a character, I need to think of something else to supplement it. I think I’ll start with a more intense rewards and fade it out. I will start with XP, and fade it to a short term mechanical reward. For the short term mechanical reward, the PC will get a choice from the following:

+2 on the check for the action they are currently attempting (if applicable).

+1 on any role at a later point in the same session. These are refered to as “stored mechanical rewards.”

To qualify for higher tier rewards, the party as a whole needs to demonstrate a similar degree of proficiency in role playing. This is described below, under D&D reward schedule.

Any specific numbers are based off of using this in a pathfinder game. Most of them can be adjusted for other games easily.

The first time a player does any Tier 1 skill, they get 100 XP. They do not get a reward for performing a tier 1 skill a second time.

Voice Acting, Acting, making choices consistent with a character’s personality, and enabling other players role play more or better will each receive a 200 XP award the first time a given PC performs that skill in a campaign. If they perform it more times, they may receive the short term mechanical rewards. Once players unlock tier 3, they are only rewarded for enabling other players to role play more or better.

Writing a Campaign Journal awards a PC the short term mechanical award. After they share the journal entry with the group, they may use the +1 bonus at a point of their choosing in the next session.

Using history to impact events during play is rewarded by the GM getting a “wishlist” of in-universe material rewards for the PC. The GM will craft a scene to incorporate the players history, as per their agreement, and will ensure that one or more item that list is present. This may be repeated, but the GM will give preference to players who have not yet this skill in the campaign. The GM may refuse items in the wishlist if they will significantly disrupt play. In a game that isn’t pathfinder, some other in-universe reward may be appropriate. When tier 3 is unlocked, this is replaced with Pursuing achievable goals in a session.

The first time a player implies subtext they get 300 XP. Afterwards, each time they get a short term mechanical reward.

Pursuing achievable goals in a session has the exact same rewards as using history to impact events during play.

Having a Character that Changes over Time is rewarded with the player receiving 1000 XP, and they have the option of starting again at Tier 1. They must change their character’s rich personality, although they may choose to keep one part of it (and only one part of it) constant. Instead of writing a new rich history they write a synopsis of the events that led to them changing, as though the events of the campaign up to that point were their character history.

Note that by this point the XP rewards will actually be quite small, since the PCs will be a level or two higher. This reduces the intensity of the XP reward system, making it effectively a token reward system. The Short Term Mechanical Bonus may be of greater interest to PCs at this point than the XP.

After completing all the tiers a second time, a player may earn Applause Tokens. Each tier they advance through earns them one applause token. They may turn in an applause token to force every player and the GM at the table to applaud them. The players and GM must think of nice things to say, shake their hand, cheer for them, and generally be as nice and encouraging as possible. This will probably be very funny. You may notice that the lowest kind of reward in my previous post is social praise, meaning that if a player is willing to exhibit the behaviour for social praise they are close to not requiring any motivation at all.

DnD-Style Reward Schedule

It sometimes seems really strange to have a reward for playing a game. Certainly playing the game is a reward in itself. If one considers the effect that experience has on playing Pathfinder or 4e D&D, however, I feel it is very clear that XP serves an important function. As the PCs go up levels the complexity of play increases. Experience thus serves to pace out how often the game increases in complexity. If XP is awarded too often, the PCs don’t get a chance to truly explore their new abilities. If it is awarded too rarely, they may get bored with the set of abilities they currently have.

So, with that in mind, I want to create a similar effect for the system of role playing rewards I’ve created above. The goal is to pace out how rapidly the complexity of role playing increases. The simplest skills are all in Tier 1, and they increase in complexity and difficulty up until tier 4.

A PC cannot earn rewards for a Tier that is locked. They can earn rewards from a Tier that is unlocked.

Tier 1 begins unlocked. All other tiers are locked.

Tier 2 becomes unlocked when all the players have completed all of tier 1.

Tier 3 becomes unlocked when all the players have completed all of tier 2.

Tier 4 becomes unlocked when at least two of the players have completed all of tier 3.

Once a player has completed tier 4, they may begin again. When repeating tiers, they must still complete all the skills of that tier to unlock the next tier. However, they do not need the other players to complete all of a given tier. They now progress through the tiers by themselves.

Using this schedule will make it so that players are exposed to higher standards of role-playing at a pace that matches the party’s ability as a whole. Hopefully this prevents less-proficient players from being overwhelmed, while having enough change to keep more-proficient players interested. It will also provide enough time for players to explore the strengths and limitations of the skills involved in each tier. The second time through the tier, the rewards are less useful. This means the reward is being faded out, and thus the players will begin to exhibit the skills more independently. The third time through, the only reward is social recognition. In theory, by the time a player has completed their way through all the tiers 3 times they will be skilled enough and motivated enough to exhibit all the roleplaying behaviours without any reward, at all.

This would leave these experienced role players with little incentive to use the tier system anymore. This is much like how I feel there is little incentive for a group of experienced pathfinder characters to start at a level below 7. Level 7 is where the game reaches it’s maximum complexity, in my opinion. Players who have the skill to create complex characters and have them evolve organically over the course of a campaign don’t need to be introduced to the skills involved gradually.

Gosh This is Complex. A Cheat Sheet Would Help

Here is a handout so that each PC can track their progress. It is both a cheat sheet and a tracking system. Roleplaying Reward System Cheat Sheet

This idea hasn’t been tested yet. I’m going to use the cheat sheet with my character in a D&D game I’m currently playing in. I won’t be able to comment on how effective the rewards are, since I’m intrinsically motivated to develop the role playing skills. However, I will be able to test how effective the skill analysis, tiers, and scheduling sytems are for improving the skills.

Credit Where Credit is Due

The conception of goals used in “Pursuing achievable goals in a session” is taken from a blog called Theory, Planning, Knowledge. They are very smart when it comes to RPG advice. I suggest taking a look at them. They frequently talk about goals, but here is the specific article that impressed me enough to steal their idea: http://tpkblog.com/home/goals2/

A more elegant example of roleplaying rewards:

The old White Wolf games were really good at incorporating character development and acting into their game mechanics. The game I’m most familiar with is Mage: the Ascension, so I’m going to talk about that for a minute.

First, there is the willpower, nature, and demeanor system I mentioned above. This means that right from the start a player has an easy to construct a relatively rich personality, and an in-universe reward for acting in line with it.

Next, there are “backgrounds.” Backgrounds represent all kinds of social resources, are pretty well defined mechanically, and are very useful during the game. However, they tend to take some work to maintain, by virtue of being social. There area also highly specialized advantages and drawbacks in the back of the book, many of which are social.

All white wolf games have a mechanic that encourages a character to withdraw from society. In Mage, that is resonance. As a mage accumulates resonance it becomes easier to work magic, but they start to become really freaky to normal people. The more resonance a mage has, the harder it is to pass for a normal person, and the harder it is to maintain their backgrounds. Resonance always has a theme, like “fire,” “controlling,” or “primitive.” It only strengthens magic that fits with its theme, and the characters appearance will change to match their resonance a little bit more closely. At high levels of resonance, random events might occur that match the resonance’s theme. A mage with high fire resonance better be careful when they go to a gas station.

Finally, a mage has an avatar, which basically amounts to a spirit guide of some kind. A mage can choose have a strong avatar, which gives them a few mechanical advantages, but then the avatar can also manipulate fate into forcing the mage to pursue certain paths. Following the avatars directions tends to help a mage become stronger at magic, but it is highly dubious whether or not an avatar has the best interests of a mage at heart. The avatar’s goal is usually to force a mage to become the most enlightened magic user possible, and the kind of requirements this imposes on a player often doesn’t line up very nicely with a character’s real interests. It is the GMs responsibility to use the avatar to present opportunities for character driven quests that will force a mage to grow as a person. Increasing Arete (effectively the Mage equivalent of going up a level) can only be done with the assistance of a mage’s avatar, so there is plenty of incentive for a PC to go along with this.

A fairly strong theme of Mage is the dangers of pride. As characters accrue resonance, they become more dependent on using their magic. Using their magic to fit into normal society requires them to be highly manipulative, and is easiest if it lines up with their resonance. This only serves to further increase their resonance. This leads mages into treating normal people like pawns. This creates play and narrative that makes the players really feel like their mages are higher, worthier, and superior to other humans.

Instead of using magic that matches their resonance, they can use willpower to get automatic successes. This allows them to use magic that doesn’t line up with their resonance, and delays the process of them needing to manipulate everyone around them. However, doing this often will exhaust the character’s supply of will power points very quickly, unless the player is such a good roleplayer that they are earning back willpower all the time. Being able to act out a character that effectively ends up making it seem like the character has a very defined personality and social role, which is sufficient to make it seem more logical for a mage to remain part of normal society.

It should be noted that following one’s avatar and increasing one’s arete is rarely a bad idea in Mage. It is much harder and slower than accruing resonance, but it doesn’t come with all the drawbacks. It’s the only way to become a stronger mage without having to eventually abandon society. However, a mage’s life is very dangerous, and often a mage will make a conscious decision to use magical artifacts or the power of holy site to strengthen their magic, even though these are often tainted with large amounts of resonance. As such, a player’s choice about how to handle difficult obstacles during play will

However, there is nothing saying that a Mage needs to remain part of normal society. They can always give up the perks of normal society, or even spend most of their time in the spirit world. This involves losing a character’s backgrounds, but some Mages might prefer easy magic and strong resonance to the material comforts of the modern world. However, “veteran” mage players I’ve met have told me that it is unwise for a player to aim to accumulate resonance and leave the material world behind. It tends to turn the game into (and this is a quote) “a bunch of angsty wanking.” This probably happens because the mage would get all depressed about leaving everything and everyone they cared about behind.

Lets take a look at the list of things that help make up roleplaying, and identify what rules from Mage support it:

  • Acting, voice acting, speaking in character: Willpower.
  • Making choices consistent with a character’s personality. Willpower and Resonance.
  • Implying through the subtext of a player’s acting, or the subtext of a character’s actions, the character’s personality, morals, motivations or goals. Willpower.
  • Creating a rich and detailed character personality. Character creation, through willpower, nature, and demeanor.
  • Creating a rich and detailed character history. Backgrounds, advantages, and drawbacks.
  • Creating a campaign journal, to create an in character commentary on the events of the campaign Nothing.
  • Having a character’s mechanical play be consistent with their personality and history. Willpower and Resonance.
  • Having a character that grows or changes over time. The conflict between resonance, willpower, and backgrounds. The impact of the Avatar on a PC.
  • Having a character history that impacts events during play, either through character controlled advantages (like allies) or by working cooperatively with the GM. Very easy with backgrounds and advantages, although not as “automatic” as the other mechanics.
  • Enabling other players to role play more or better. None

  • Having discrete, achievable in-character goals, and working towards them during game time. When the GM provides a goal for personal growth through the Avatar might count. Although the player does not initiate these events, they get to choose how they react to them. However, since the player doesn’t initiate the events that lead to character change a person could argue it doesn’t qualify. I will count it, though.

The rules for mage manages to incorporate 9/11 (81%) of the parts of roleplaying identified in this post, and they are all intimately related to play. They are not tacked on after the fact, like my role-playing reward system. It is an ingenius work of game design. Most games barely manage to get 9% (1/11)

Wraith: the Oblivions has additional rules that help incorporate “enabling other players to role play more or better.” This is their famous “Shadow” system. However, Wraith requires such a dedicated group of players I’ve only plaid it for a very short period of time, and I don’t feel comfortable commenting on it at length.

Request for Feedback or Reader Contributions

I do not feel my list of behaviours that constitue role playing is complete. If you can think of more, I would love to hear from you. I also am not satisfied with the particular mechanical rewards I chose. I feel they are too general. If you can think of any more genre specific rewards that could make gameplay more interesting than “+1 to rolls” I would love to hear from you.

I’d also be interested in your ideas for how to adjust the conditions or rewards for game systems other than pathfinder. For example, Mutants and Masterminds has hero points and complication rules, which can be used to alter both the conditions for the rewards and the rewards themselves. White Wolf handles most, but not all, of the role-playing rewards implicitly in game mechanics, but the players will still need to be mindful of the roleplaying skills to get the most out of the system. How would you handle the few things White Wolf doesn’t handle, and how would you want to remind players to be mindful of role playing skills?