Thursday, June 26, 2014

GM Showmanship

The glorious Star Theatres smaller theatre.
Let's face it.  Pretty much no GM wants to make their players feel redundant, irrelevant or like they are mere spectators.  GMs want their players to be engaged, excited and amazed.  They want buy in.  They want the players to be sitting there wondering what new miraculous thing will turn up.  The trouble is that the same techniques which can leave players spellbound can also leave them ... frustrated.

Part of the wonders and frustrations of the game revolves around GM showmanship.  As a player, I wanted to be wowed.  I want to have fantastic things happen.  Mostly I want to be the epicentre of those fantastic things, but I also enjoy seeing things happening over there because it gives the world a greater mystique and sense of realism.

Yet much of the showmanship has a great risk to become either dull or disempowering (or both).  So there's this major battle between an epic paladin and a dragon occurring on the outskirts of the city ... it's fitting, it ties into the major story, and it showcases what the players may one day become.  Yet odds are the GM never rolls for either creature and so, in truth, the players will never one day become that paladin whose abilities are perfect in every way because they will have to worry about fizzled spells and a potential run of missed attacks that can throw off their groove.

On the other hand, the GM could roll in front of them but that puts the players into the spectator seats of a longer, more drawn out and incredibly dull variation on the game.  Few people quiver in excitement at the opportunity to watch a combat in action, let alone when one person is rolling against themselves, because it's just not very exciting.

The ideal situation, in this case, would be to either have the dramatic event occur as a backdrop (which'd be way more exciting) as the players have to gather up the villagers to safety from under the dragon's crushing paws or busily pickpocket the local nobility while they turn up to watch the battle from the safety of parapets.  That way the GM can get their showmanship going while still ensuring the players are still the protagonists of "their story" (and so that the description is neither cut too short to be tense nor drags out too long to become an unceasing monologue).

If the GM had pre-thought this event, they could even throw in the vagaries of chance by recording the battle's series of rolls and then intermittently interjecting with the details of a failed safe or a successful attack through thunderous displays that flash over the party's heads as they do what they need to do.

So in short, GMs need their showmanship but it's important to remain empathic to the needs of the others at the table.  Just like people enjoy lyrical moments from a PC but get irritable if that same PC hogs a big portion of time while they twiddle their thumbs, so to is their reaction to even the most astounding and impressive feat of imagination drawn from the GM's mind to lay dormant and docile before them.

After all, they're not here to hear a story.  They're here to become it!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Stealth & Decision Making

The creature lurking in the grass is my cat, Desna. As you can see, she could manage to make her stealth check if she didn't move by pretending to be a statue or something but she's hardly blending in. White fur among the dark grass tends to do that to you.

She's also highlighting the important difference between roleplay stealth and real world (or at least LARP) stealth. You see, she has made the decision to lurk among the long grasses while sniffing about. She could have chosen to hide behind a tree or walk into the bushes (and has done so, annoyingly enough to me as she's only let out in harness and leash). Each choice she makes determines the likely success of her attempts to hide. While some element of luck and skill comes into it (such as standing really still or for the searcher to happen not to look at the right angle), most of it falls down to her decisions as a cat.

The same is not true for roleplaying characters.

While a player may make decisions within combat (regular shot, called shot, seek cover, weapon choice, at the very least) and the outcomes of those decisions are arbitrarily represented (i.e. dice and stats), the same cannot be said for stealth (or athletics, really). A player can have an epiphany in an investigation or draw on general knowledge, but there's no Aha! stealth moment.

Success and failure is entirely dice related (or point expenditure related). Beyond Stealth, Fight or Flee, there are no credible decisions involving stealth because:

1) While there are sometimes items and equipment which modify stealth, these only come up once when you pick your clothing.

2) Yes, sticking to the shadows and avoiding the squeaky floorboards are important stealth elements but they're also common sense. Thus players will be annoyed if a GM penalises them for forgetting to mention that they're not striding across the brightly lit centre of the room when they say they're sneaking.

3) The ideal hiding place is a nook or a cranny and adults generally live in adult-sized places that don't waste space on nooks and crannies that would fit them. This leaves a much shorter range of hiding places and thus the best choice of hiding place is the most obvious.

4) Few systems (if any) involve a random roll to decide which hiding places are searched and which are ignored. Instead a stealth check is required to see how well a character can lie under a bed or cower in a wardrobe.

5) Timing is irrelevant. The GM doesn't sit there envisioning the patrol paths of the NPCs or making them move across a hidden map while the player waits to choose their moment to rush out. If timing matters, it is because the GM has decided that you took too long or acted too early, largely for narrative reasons.

6) There is only one stealth skill. While some systems split it into Hide and Move Silently skills, this is more of an XP sink than a credible choice as timing is a non-issue and thus the question is never should you wait or should you move, but, when you move will you make that check? If you are better at one than the other then you will rely on that skill but you won't be making decisions around it.

Personally the only way to make a good stealth game that I can see involves the use of tactical maps and floor plans. If you hid one copy behind your GM screen and placed one on the middle of the table, then you could force people to make decisions based on where they went and what they did by moving miniatures around the map. You could therefore increase the random element of line of sight, timing and other details, providing information according to your player character's senses (and rolls) and working from that basis. If your enemy mini happened to be facing their way when they pop out from under the bed then a chase will ensue.

This would theoretically make players more cautious and more alert, simulating the same kind of tension found in a real stealth game. Of course, it could also create a strategic distancing element between player and character as the player stares at the map. Plus Maps = Extra Work.

Anyway, when I get the opportunity I'm going to try this map idea out and see how it works. Meanwhile, if you get the chance to try it out, let me know how you find the technique.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Epiphanies in Game Play

It's important for Game Masters of every stripe to realise that not only will players sometimes be dense, requiring a great multitude of clues to point them in the right direction, but also that sometimes they will suddenly tumble to the answer. They may do this with astounding quickness, taking a few disparate details and joining them together, either because they're genre savvy to a few general details or because of a sudden leap of logic that just fits the pieces better than any other current alternative. Either way, it's important not to take their realisation away from them because that breathless moment when an epiphany strikes you is a golden opportunity that players very often remember. If you steal it away from them, negating it using GM fiat, then it becomes quite disappointing and the moment will instead be remembered as "That time I was almost awesome but then the GM blocked my moment." Now while a certain amount of genre blindness can be expected and the player shouldn't use out of character knowledge to help them (such as suddenly declaring the tome should be burnt or the artefact shattered when they know nothing of their sanity draining effects in-game), other moments of genre savviness should be respected. After all, not every genre detail is illogical. In crime fiction as in reality, the murderer is likely to be known to the victim and copycats are a distinct possibility. If the players are in the middle of a serial killer investigation and thus picks up a few clues on one death that doesn't quite match the others, they have every right to start knocking down the husbands' door demanding answers. Sure, your player may have relief on a little bit of genre savviness to figure it out but they're not trained police investigators so they need every edge they can get.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Outlast Lingers

Outlast is a terrifyingly good game that lingers with you long after you leave the keyboard. It somehow manages to hit the sweet spot in explaining just enough to make you happy while leaving enough details open and vague to give you something to mull over once you walk away from the game and I think that's important. Games which tie it all up in a knot (or conversely leave you too little to go on) don't make you think about it because there's nothing left over to think about.

I also like how the game actually gives you a small section of gameplay after you succeed rather than simply fading to black. While this is partly due to the type of epilogue you get, it also gives you a chance to wind down. You wouldn't believe how annoyed I am by games that go: "Okay, boss down, level over, roll credits." Umm, what? I finished the game for ... credits? Give me something interesting! Something to chew on! Something to come down on or get whipped up about.

Roleplaying games can learn a lot from videogames (and other forms of fiction) in this regard. While plenty of campaigns aren't made with a discernible end in sight and normally just peter out or are cut off suddenly as interest permits, those that do certainly run the risk of ending it too abruptly. Unless everyone had to die to make the ritual happen, there should be at least a short conclusion as they backtrack through the dungeon or say their parting words to each other before riding off into the sunset or they comfort the survivors, or whatever else it could be.

It's also important to avoid the epilogue simply being an opportunity for the players to randomly talk through their characters or to force it to go on for too long. While the GM certainly shouldn't take full control of an epilogue, they should try to flavour it. Let the characters say their final words while walking through the ruined dungeon or during an after-party celebration or over the graves of their lost companions. Give the players the chance to make it poignant. And, of course, if all the players immediately drop out of character post boss fight and simply want to discuss things OOCly than let them do so but don't force it either way. If the OOC chat goes for a few minutes it's probably best to signal the end of the game by packing up your equipment so that they know the game is over rather than allowing a patchy OOC for several minutes brief IC moment OOC for several moments combination.

Don't be afraid, however, to let each player have a bit of narrative control to at least describe the fates of their character if they would prefer or to hear your pronouncements if they like it better. This can be done OOCly even, as a final statement before they head off.

Considering that people generally play in campaigns for far longer than they watch a movie or play a videogame it's important to give the epilogue a sense of 'conclusion' so that they can bask in a game well ended.

So have you ended any games lately? And if so, did you go for an epilogue and how did that work out for you?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Faulty Assumptions: Four Player Party

I'm not sure if it's a case of unbreakable habit or faulty economics but there is an assumption that every campaign should have between 4 - 6 players.  If you can fit them around the table and run a game for them that doesn't dissolve into boredom and frustration for a few members, then that's the right number to have.

Unfortunately this assumptions provides a number of issues of their own.  While four players can make a reasonable tactical game, six players leads to either arguments about the tactics to take or a few silent players while the others take the limelight (more often than not).

When it comes to investigative games, even four players become unwieldy when they crowd delicate witnesses and kerb stomp the usual thug challenge.  After all, it's hard to intimidate a car load of people.  Since these sorts of games tend to be pretty environmentally intensive with people examining objects and looking for clue trails it can also be tricky to keep four people busy. 

Generally 2 - 3 players are your best bet here as one player may struggle with the challenge of finding all the clues and figuring out all of the paths (though a handy NPC could drop a few hints to guide their way).

Finally I have found that even horror games ride with the assumption that there will be four players involved.  In truth I have found that the smaller the better in a dedicated horror game.  While any game, even six player ones, can have their sessions of genuine horror it is harder to create a plot of creeping disquiet that isn't gobbled up by the realities of a larger group.  Therefore we shouldn't be making the exceptions to the rule the reasons for having the rule in place.

In other words, while you *can* run a horror game with 4 - 6 players, the average horror game would be best off with 1 - 2 players with a third player the upper maximum.  This is especially the case if the horror game involves a lot of psychological horror (to ensure each character gets enough airtime to deal with their terrors) or stealth sequences (since there are few enough hiding places for the average adult in any one location).

The irony of our obsession with 4 - 6 players is that the investigative and horror genres have a smaller player demographic and therefore it's harder to fill out those numbers.  GMs who are desperate to run a straight horror game would be best off recruiting their 1 - 3 hardcore horror fans rather than begging, wheeling and dealing with action and fantasy fans to play in the game.

So please, please, please, don't feel like you have to fit into the four player mould.  There's nothing wrong with a game that runs with fewer than four players.  In fact, in many of the less popular genres it's actually preferable so take it as an advantage! 

After all, while any fantasy GM quickly learns that it's hard to keep to the 4 - 5 player limit with so many eager wannabe players, horror and investigative GMs can guiltlessly run with far fewer players.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Fanfiction: Outlast Novelisation

I don't normally talk about books on this blog, let alone fan written ones, but since I've just finished both Outlast and its tremendously horrifying DLC: Whistleblower, I've been needing a fix to help me come down from the heights of fear and I've found it over here.  Soon I will go over what I learned in Outlast, doing a series of articles on the subject, followed by a Game Translation itself most likely.  Anywho, short post for now.  I totally recommend checking out that link (though ideally *after* you've played the game) as it's a really good read that captures the feel of it brilliantly and adds so much more.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Storyteller Base Assumptions Behind The Dark Before Dawn LARP

This picture sums up my thematic desire for this campaign.
I'm still in the design phase of my Vampire: the Requiem (Ordo Dracul) LARP chronicle in terms of figuring out what custom mechanics, covenant positions and activities would best support an interesting LARP experience.  I've played and run full court games before, but I wanted to do something different this time - focus on the Ordo Dracul and their reactions to a series of strange occult situations. 

It is still very much a theatre LARP and as I want to run it monthly I need to make sure that there's enough to do in-game to keep people entertained.

And yes, players will find ways to keep themselves entertained but a) the primary arena of PvP in a vampire court is about becoming prince which isn't an option for the Ordo Dracul, b) the secondary arena of PvP in a vampire court is about gaining status or eroding another's status while Ordo Dracul status is more dependent on number of coils earned and sworn status, and c) plenty of players do end up bored in the average Elysium game which encourages all sorts of trouble as the players try to remain occupied.  Sometimes this trouble is beneficial, canonical, and adds to the experience.  Sometimes it's just plain silly.

So I wanted to make sure there were plenty of different things people could aim to achieve and that there would be real rewards for achieving those goals that are canonically accurate and interesting to examine so that both the gamists and the simulationists can have something to do.  I also want to encourage certain behaviours (i.e. the higher ups giving objectives to lower status members) and knowledge (i.e. elders should be able to tell anecdotes about their history and Dragons should have something to say about their experiments) which should please the narrativists as they'll have more to connect with.

And yes, I know that GNS theory isn't the Be All and End All but casting a thought to any and all different cross sections of players is a good idea.  At the very least if a category of player doesn't suit the game, or a particular game role, then I can direct them to another LARP or role which would suit them.  As an example, if authority figures are meant to avoid the action in favour of sending their underlings to investigate, and this choice is a big part of the social contract around ensuring all players remain relevant, than it would be unfair to let an action-oriented player take a major position of authority without knowing what they will be losing and without suggestions for how they may have political influence *and* stay involved in the section of the game they love the most.

So I've put up an entire article on my main considerations and how these affect the game over on my Dark Before Dawn campaign blog.  Feel free to take a look.

I'm happy for any questions, comments or critiques on the article, either here or over there.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Hazards of PvP: Humiliation

Humiliating another character without ALSO humiliating the player is a tricky business because, despite the general myth to the contrary, the human brain isn't wired to know the difference between in-game and out-of-game experiences.  While these situations do sometimes go well with everyone enjoying the moment, if the other player is too good at their job, the humiliation is too complete or the situation too intense (or triggering), things often progress to the "blame game" which can lead to a player complaining about the event for months, or even years, afterwards.

That's ... not a great place to be.

For anyone.

Yet it comes up a lot.

I think the trouble is, in part, the instinctive reactions our brains have to certain body language and facial expressions.  If I slam my fists down on the table and yell in your face, you will have a certain emotional response.  After the initial shock, it will likely be a much reduced one because you *know* I don't intend to hurt you, but that won't stop your brain from gearing up for the possibility that maybe I actually *am* angry.  If you know me, and we deal with each other happily enough later on, then that will help enormously against that reaction. 

But what if you don't know me?  What if we've just met?  What if you try to approach me with a smile to check in after game and I don't realise this and instead give you the cold shoulder and go do something else?  In truth, I could be distracted, have an urgent phone call, misread your body language or simply be socially awkward, introverted, or otherwise desperately needing a few minutes alone to recharge.

It may have *nothing* to do with you, but you won't know that.

And that's the trouble with issues like humiliation which are deeply unpleasant especially if it is over something you, as a player, legitimately thought was a good course of action.  Not only is it an unpleasant experience (though unpleasant emotions can be satisfyingly cathartic).  Now I'm not saying that every gaming experience needs to be pleasant.  I love me some horror gaming and fear is specifically an emotion that pushes you to *avoid* a situation, but part of what makes horror gaming so much fun is because deep down you know you're safe.

If I were to go to a horror game and truly fear for my life, truly think I might be attacked, then it wouldn't be so much fun anymore.

The same thing is the case with humiliation and other similar acts (such as character death) only the lines are far more blurry than with threats of actual bodily harm.

There is a chance that the other player does hate us, that they do want to ruin our fun for the power trip, that they are callously indifferent to the needs of other players, that they are willing to cheat or bribe other players as players to get what they want and that we are being treated unfairly as players, rather than as characters.

And since we have such a stigma (in Australia, at least) against feeling your character's emotions, we refuse to accept the fact that the humiliating situation might have stung because that's what being humiliated feels like.  No one was out to get us.  No one hates us.  That stinging sensation isn't a warning sign from out gut that there's actual players out to get us.  It's just there because the situation temporarily sucked.  It may have triggered memories of past humiliations or given someone new insight into what it's like to be in that spot. 

But with all that stigma out there, we can't admit that.  Admitting that we felt bad and it made us cross or angry is tantamount to saying: "AVOID ME FOR I AM A TERRIBLE PLAYER!"

Now who would want to do that?

So we externalise that pain and we paint the other players with it.  We justify our positions and our emotions rather than simply venting about the situation, admitting that the situation affected us, and then moving on.  And this is very much a shame as the worst thing you can do is to flat out refuse to consider that this might be normal and to instead seek out someone to blame as blame absolutely stone walls the only actual solution -- which is communication and opening yourself up to positive experiences with that other player to ensure that the negative message isn't the only one your brain gets in regards to that other player.

NOTE: This doesn't mean that there are no bad players who are out to spoil another's fun nor does it mean that there are no players who are overly sensitive and need to be handled with kid gloves lest they have a mini melt down.  I just don't believe that each and every player has to be one or the other.

Feelings happen.  Maybe it's just time we admitted that.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Hazards of PvP: Rankism

According to wikipedia, rankism can take many forms, including
  • exploiting one's position within a hierarchy to secure unwarranted advantages and benefits (e.g. massive corporate bonuses);
  • abusing a position of power ;
  • using rank as a shield to get away with insulting or humiliating others with impunity;
  • using rank to maintain a position of power long after it can be justified;
  • exporting the rank achieved in one sphere of activity to claim superior value as a person;
  • exploiting rank that is illegitimately acquired or held (as in situations resting on specious distinctions of social rank, such as racism, sexism, or classism).
This sounds like an important part of most PvP political games where some form of corruption is expected and anticipated.  Unlike other political PvP tactics, this one holds fewer risks as it rarely targets a specific individual as the victim and thus can often encourage those negatively affected to bond together to subvert the power of the authority figures, even if not to outright challenge it.

Of course, rankism can still have challenging side effects, such as when the player's needs dominate those of the characters.  While your average high ranked character shouldn't be throwing themselves into harm's way, generally most players will be motivated to do exactly that and therefore those characters with rank get to go out on all the missions, know all of the in-game secrets required to find those missions and otherwise be able to get to do all of the exciting grunt work on top of being in charge of all the wheeling and dealing.  This can lead to those at the bottom of the hierarchy to miss out entirely on nearly every aspect of the game which leads to a poorer game for them.

On the other hand, if rankism is played in-game as it would be in real life with those of higher ranked holding executive control and managerial oversight, then rankism can work out quite well, with players of more action-oriented 'grunts' enjoying their side of the game while griping about the arrogance of the wheeler dealers who dominate in the political, social and potentially intellectual sides of the game.

Unfortunately this form of rankism generally isn't very common because players naturally don't want to limit themselves to only one half of the experience.  Such players also may not realise (though some do), that their in character rank is allowing them to dominate the game to such an extent, especially if they don't sit back and think about their choice's repercussions.

In games where higher ranked characters also have more experience points (such as due to a vampire's age), those players are doubly encouraged to do everything themselves as they are better positioned to succeed.  It may even seem like a foolish, selfish and cruel thing, to send weaker novices in their place against a dangerous enemy.  Most games have a canonical reason why they should send the novices (i.e. vampires selfishly protect their own unlives at all costs) but this can be more easily ignored when a player's own enjoyment is at stake.

This isn't to say that most players actively seek to push others out of the game, or even that they are indifferent to such effects, more that sufficient temptation can make self-justifying bastards out of us all, especially if no one has pointed out the risks to us in the first place.  Therefore in a PvP LARP it is important to ground such status *in* sticking to your own purview and providing IC and OOC checks against single players being able to do all things all the time while simultaneously preventing other player's access. 

The easier we make it for players to know what they should be doing, remember what they should be doing, and rewarding them for doing what they should be doing, the better off the game will be.  And by "we", I mean all of us ... players, cast, crew, GMs and organisers included.