Monday, April 12, 2010

Exposition, Narrative, Insane Clowns, and Daggers You Really Want

*Warning, this is something of a rant*

In my opinion gameplay shouldn't be complimented by roleplaying. It should be the other way around. Game mechanics should be designed around the narrative/roleplaying in the game.

One of my favorite experiences as a GM was actually running a relatively short-lived D&D 4th edition game with a few of my friends. There was a tale about an “emotional plane” (home-brewed stuff of course) colliding with our. One of the fights was against a “Insanity Elemental”. He had 3 little “invokers” which could activate an “insanity” effect on the players. I knew the players pretty well so I tossed out the rules for “insanity” from the PHB and went for something more abstract. If he successfully effected them with this spell-like ability they would become “insane”. An insane character got a save at the end of their turn (10+ ends) but one of their actions was controlled by the GM. (Movement, standard, free, ect) By describing the various things that MADE THEM INSANE I didn't even have to take the action for them by the end of the fight! For instance, the spell caster had a lava-lamp like thing apparently smothering him so the only obvious answer to his character was to magic-missile himself in the face to get it off. (his choice- not mine) Another one actually took off his armor and got naked due to the apparent seething flames belching forth from his armor. It was an example of rules almost coming about as a result of good roleplaying.

In that same campaign the players where effected by a “Lust Elemental” who compelled every member of the party to seek out “the dagger”. The players didn't know WHAT “the dagger” was but (as our mantra became that session) they “really wanted the dagger”. EVERY question about it ended with the line “...but/and you really want the dagger.”. Even when the players where doing something completely unrelated I would bug them for a moment and say something like:
“Hay Andrew“
“Do YOU want the dagger?”
“Um.. I don't know? Do I?”
“Yes... you want the dagger”
“Hay Alissa“
“O god...”
“Do YOU want the dagger?”
“*Sigh* Yes”
“That's right... you want the dagger”
This went on for the ENTIRE session, to the point where there was no need to use any in-game mechanics to FORCE them to roleplay a magical compulsion towards the dagger- they simply wanted the dagger. In the end it was actually another lust elemental who had turned herself into a dagger. I didn't even bother to make rules for the magical compulsion- the players just really wanted the dagger. It was an interesting experience, the roleplaying guided the group to almost make rules for themselves. I guess if you paint a vivid enough picture or make something EXCESSIVLY reprehensible then you can guide a game simply by roleplay rather than by clunky rules. Do I think this would work for a group of inexperienced roleplayers? No. The people I had with me where all excellent and where doing this out of sheer enjoyment- but that's how pen and paper games should be right? Just sitting around laughing you ass off while playing a compelling game. To this day when I talk to the players they still something ask “By the way, do I want the dagger?” and all I can do is smile and say “Yes! You REALLY want the dagger.”

Pathfinder Extra

I had an entire campaign written up for a group that never ran so I'll toss it up on the site. I know I've been going on a lot about Pathfinder lately but I've taken a shine to it. It's D&D 3.5 fixed (more or less), kinda like what Hackmaster did to AD&D. I've gotta say- it's pretty fun. I like it a bit more than 3.5 and certifiably bad ass when compared to 4th edition's MMO-ness. (Sure it's quicker... but I'm a fan of rules upon rules upon rules :D I'm a wargammer damn it! Don't screw with the good parts!) What follows is a kinda smattering of the interesting bits from the campaign setting:

Racial Lore: Vættir (Vet-te-ear)

Elves and Dwarves are of the same race (collectively called “Vættir”). Their origins are unclear; however they seem to have been influenced a great deal by magic at some point in their evolution. All Elves are female (in fact in Vættir “Elf” means “Female” generally) and all Dwarves are male. This is something of an extreme example of sexual dimorphism. They generally live in separate communities and more often than not- dislike each other a great deal. (Courtship is extremely difficult…) Vættir never are subject to death though aging- though their bodies do eventually weaken and they become more accident prone. In regards to mixed breeding with other races, the daughter of an elf is always a full blooded elf. A half-elf is always male (and normally laughed very hard at by Dwarves). The son of a Dwarf is always a Dwarf. The daughter of a dwarf is a half dwarf (Counted as “Halfling” but has the familiarity with the weapon family “Dwarf” instead of Halfling). It should be noted that half-breeds are sterile.

Homebrewed Special Rules:
“Only wicked shall perish.”
Those who revere the Divine Father (or whatever deity you are interested in) are subject to his protection. In his eyes, those who are wicked (even temporarily) are undeserving of his graces. Those who uphold his tenets and act in the name of justice should never fear the blade of the wicked. To represent this characters that follow the Divine Father stabilize on charisma roll of 15+ if they are of the good alignment. If they are neutral they use the normal rules for going below zero. Players who worship the Divine Father who fall to the evil alignment instantly die when they reach zero hit points. Following another deity shifts you to evil alignment to evil (as you have betrayed your deity). The Divine Father objects to his people using any other deity’s power. Willfully seeking the blessing of another deity shifts your alignment towards Evil. To the Divine Father, Magic is a sick blight on the planet- tainting pure ideals with it’s influence. Using a magic automatically shifts your alignment towards Evil.

“All things are temporary.”
In this setting alignment is a shifting aspect of one’s personality. An evil act could easily drop a character from a good alignment to a neutral or possibly evil alignment depending on its severity. However, more redemption is just easily obtained.

“Magic is learned, not earned.”
Spell casting classes must be multi-classed into. You must find a teacher as a prerequisite. (This also goes for the magical rogue talents and all magic feats.)

“Burn the Witch!”
The exception to the above rule is Sorcerer. Sorcerers are generally looked upon with disdain, their raw magical talents are (especially in some parts of the world) looked upon as an inherent impurity. If you wish to play a Sorcerer you must do so at first level.

-The Divine Father (LG)
Domains: Glory, Good, Law, Healing, War, Nobility
Mysteries (Oracles): Battle, Heavens
Favored Weapon: Longsword

Design notes on the above:

Feel free to change the fluff, the constantly changing alignment is fun as well as the “only the wicked shall perish”. Note that Paladins are almost REQUIRED to be psycho good if you implement to this. Falling is not only possible but is very easy, roleplaying is a lot of fun for this. You might want to power them up a bit if you do use this with in-game intensives (like gear). In my campaign setting it was a requirement to be from a very prominent kingdom where a good part of the story takes place in.

I also think magic is all to often just “tossed” into games without much thought. I am a proponent of making magic “something fantastic”. This allows players to feel a sense of accomplishment when they are using it and don't just take it for granted. Alternatively it makes them go “OHHHHH GOD!” when they see an enemy tossing around powerful spells.

It's a real treat for the players emotionally and roleplaying-wise when there is a very polarizing issue in the game. In the campaign I wrote with these elements magic was flat out despised in certain areas where others where dandy with it. Casting magics in any kingdom under the influence of the Divine Father could land you in jail or just out and out killed on the spot. Keep in mind that gameplay should be PART of the roleplaying experience- not a cut scene battle :D

Analysis of Pathfinder Character Class Statistics

So! When I was going over the info for the “Low Fantasy” setting of Pathfinder's single customizable character class concept I did some analysis of what appeared in the classes progression wise.

These are just sheer numbers and it should be noted that a lot of this is my own chicken-scratch in a excel-like program. (Open Office's “Calc”) Some of the data recorded is totally useless but useless data sometimes stimulates my brain when I'm brainstorming.

Game with Meaning- Nobyl'

It's always been my belief that meaning comes from three things. Immersion, emotional attachment, and story. The three elements are quite interconnected so to define them could help. A player needs to be immersed in the story, weaving narrative into exposition so that game-play doesn't get in the way of a players personal connection to the story. Players need to develop an emotional attachment to the elements involved in the plots. In this regard the farther elements from the narrative get away from things they can personally relate to the less emotionally connected they are. (Players are more likely to connect to the plight of a puppy then to the plight of Slab Bulkhead the space marine from Mars) The narrative or story is the unifying thread that runs between the two- it is rather hard to create an earnest emotional connection or retain a high degree of player-immersion without a narrative. There is “Jenga” style personal connection to something YOU made, but a game concept that relays on that alone will be on wobbly feet indeed. It is with this in mind that I put forth the following game concept.

A narrative driven story that revolves around a member of a military reconnaissance unit during April 1986. Due to the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia and because of based on bad intelligence as to the exact nature of the United States sends in a recon unit to gather intelligence on a power plant in Prypiat, Ukraine. The player makes user-generated characters to fill out an Airborne United States Army Special Forces unit that the player brings up from basic training to their special ops training, all the way to their first real mission in Prypiat. I chose to employ user-generated content because when someone MAKES something it becomes a good deal more relatable. It should also be noted that user-generated content is a double edged sword. A player's initially reaction is to put whoever they may into a frilly pink dress, give them a mustache and a 5 o'clock shadow. This game would give them a LIMITED amount of control (height, weight, facial elements, eye color, voice style, hair color, hair style, names from a list). Each character “spot” would have a background narrative explained via dialogue during the narrative. One might be a hick farm boy from the south while another might be a rich-boy gamer from the north who wants to act out his violent fantasies for real. Each spot would be tailor made to be relatable to a major demographic in the United States.

The characters eventually make it to an air-drop in Prypiat where they have to establish a observational perimeter around the power plant and gather as much intelligence as possible. (By “looking” at various targets) It should be noted that players are given a gun and showed how to use it, as well as a side arm, combat knife, and hand to hand but they only have to fire it once or twice. This is a narrative driven story rather than a combat driven one.

The real emotional part of the story is the characters are actually observing Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant when it goes off. They must watch as the citizens of Pripyat die slowly without giving away their cover. The US government refuses to pick them up- they are a covert operation and they can't just swoop in while the world's eyes are on them. You must also deal with the traumatic death of your squad mates. To make the story more immersive the game never out and out says “ Chernobyl” until it blows. It just refers to it as “the Pripyat Power Plant” and makes little mention of it's nuclear properties. This is so the players don't immediately make the connection.

Near the end of the game the player, now the only surviving member of the squad, decides to break his cover and attempt to save as many people from the spreading nuclear cloud as possible. (The Russians where VERY slow in alerting them to the real nature of the disaster and as a result. Waiting until 2p.m. on 27 April to really get started) The game ends with the player's character running out into the streets shooting off his gun trying to get people to flee- shouting out a warning before finally succumbing to his radiation exposure. The music plays him out on the Ballard of the Green Berets.

The goal of this game is not only to use the close personal connections for players, but also to educate the world on the shortcomings of the Soviet government in handling this accident. It would be as historically accurate as possible.