30 March 2009

Modern Storytelling

I remember once Mike made a comparison between roleplaying and the ancient art of storytelling. He wasn't wrong either. Sure, the details have changed but a lot of what goes on (at least round our way) under the guise of role playing is actually group storytelling. What struck me at the time was that before the widespread adoption of the printing press, before radio, before television, these activities must have gone on. They must have because we still know ancient myths even though they could not be set down and widely distributed (to most people) until some time in the 19th Century.

Storytelling was, if anything, an orally transmitted and propagated cultural phenomenon in its old form. When you could read from a book, or listen to the radio, when you could go to the movies, watch television or play a computer game it looked like the ancient art of storytelling was redundant. It served no purpose. It was just a phase humanity went through before it got a next gen console.

I can't question what Mr. Gygax was thinking about when he invented D&D. It seems pretty obvious on one level. What he has ended up doing is paving the way for storytelling to come back. This is what I love about role playing books. They're not an attempt to replace a group activity involving people interacting. They're a support to that process. All the stories of the World of Darkness are just prologue to the player campaigns.

A weighty heritage for a hobby that has not thus far managed to cast off its geek-laden roots.

It's come to me recently, over and over, that there must have been a real hunger at some level of society for the return of group storytelling because the original roleplaying set up just doesn't seem like a terribly attractive proposition.

RPGs at their inception were games. You could win and you could lose. The roll of the dice was a core component in "beating" the dungeon adventure. Scores were vital. These trappings, the trappings of the competitive pursuit have proven almost impossible for the hobby to cast off so far. There just hasn't been anyone to reshape any part of it into a discrete entertainment experience.

So Justin and I are writing the manual but make no mistake this is something the people we knew were tending towards anyway. There are a few vital ingredients that we have had to bring in from the cold but the core of No Dice is the making available of a group storytelling experience to a culture that neglected and carelessly forgot how to engage in it. Not that I think modern story based role play is much like a storytelling experience of yore but the parts that are the same are vital, community, communication, sharing time as a group.

We were lucky enough at the weekend to have a complete role-play n00b join us for the preview event. I ran a hitherto notorious zombie romp called "Con of the Dead" which relies a little on the participants having some knowledge of SF television. Until now this has never been a problem in the groups I have encountered. Our n00b however, didn't watch any television particularly and so was in danger of missing many of the in-jokes.

The problem of being the Host is that even if people find their minds numb at the end of the day the tendency is to smile and nod and thank you because people realise how much work you must have done and feel that criticising it would be rude. So I asked our n00b how he liked the session and he said all the right things. After the session I asked Sue whether she got the same vibe.

This is the joy of Sue. People will tell her what they think even if it's that they thought my game sucked. Quite the reverse occurred in this case and we may have one more enthusiastic player to join in the fun of the non-Marauders week game. Justin wryly remarked that we'd have to monitor this "Pied Piper" effect closely. We already split off a monthly group to make a weekly one. Now it looks like we may end up splitting off the weekly one to make, er, two weekly groups if we're not careful.

As Justin rightly pointed out the real answer is to get people skilled up to take the No Dice approach out to the world. Then we don't have to keep catering for fresh addicts who want a gaming fix. Not that I mind trying to fill my life with gaming activities and introducing the hobby to new people but there are so many hours in a day, days in a week and so on and so forth.

23 March 2009

Throwing GMs to the Wolf

The always entertaining Everything2 throws up this node about White Wolf's World of Darkness. I have tended to enjoy the WoD games I've played but then I've always played WoD GMed by my friends Alex and Mike who are excellent GMs so maybe this doesn't say much. Even so, I have always liked the way there's some sort of conflict meter on the White Wolf Character Sheets I've seen. The sheets themselves tend to be a little crowded but the central theme-o-meter is always there, reminding you what kind of game you should be playing.

Whether you are playing exactly that kind of game is mostly up to the GM, sometimes there's a lot of the intended thematics in play, sometimes not so much but I don't think that's necessarily a fault. I'm not sure how White Wolf would feel about that. On the one hand any game designer would probably be happy to know that someone's playing their game and having a good time. On the other I know GMs and content creators cannot help but hand wring a bit when players and GMs wander away from "the point".

I expect a regular reader here would characterise me as someone who has a lot more time for White Wolf than D&D. On the surface one would be correct in that assumption. I certainly approve of White Wolf wanting to make the game about some epic theme. That's a step in the right direction. But I possess about as much White Wolf stuff as I do D&D stuff. My favourite role playing game ever, Over The Edge, was written by authors of much D&D material, I also have a copy of Feng Shui by one of the same guys, and an aging, unused copy of the D20 Modern Core Manual (good for a laugh occasionally). On the White Wolf tangential side I own a game called "Deliria" by a guy called Phil Brucato who worked on several White Wolf titles I didn't even buy that new like I did my copies of Feng Shui and OTE. So I have read more material by D&D style thinkers than White Wolf style thinkers.

My problem with White Wolf is that from what I have skimmed through in idle moments given access to friend's bookshelves is that they love rich detail and prescription, a veritable cornucopia of "what". When you get to the "how" it suddenly falls back on rolling dice and checking modifiers.

I suppose the news that I run into a problem when people suggest a dice roll is hardly surprising at this stage. But here's the unusual coda to that thought. I am getting a little tired of repeating that if you want to go and roll some dice, kill some uglies and hoist some phat lewt then for heaven's sake go do so. What I think I have a problem with is dressing that experience up like it's something else.

Not that it necessarily isn't something else in the hands of a skilled GM. But that leads us to the famous "forget the dice and sheet covered in numbers, let's role play" situation.

I haven't developed a White Wolf addiction for the reason that a trace amount of White Wolf concept will set my mind off like a tin of lighter fuel and a lit match tossed into a firework warehouse. I am used to having ideas. I've probably ignored a dozen sleeting through my brain since I started writing this (that's why I always seem a little tangential).

My aim is to help other people have ideas too and I don't like things that appear to be a help in that direction and are in truth just compendia of other people's ideas. I know that if I read a sourcebook I will have so many ideas that eventually one or two of them will probably have legs and walk on their own. Some people, though, only get one or two ideas from any given source material and unless those ideas are made to live then no more will be forthcoming.

A lot of conflict comes about because of communication breakdown and I think that the implication that White Wolf product will inevitably stoke your imagination if you just buy three more supplements is a little dishonest. I've not seen much evidence of the idea forging processes I learned in my time at university in the campaign writing advice sections of role playing games, I'm not singling White Wolf out for that at all, no role playing game has had these techniques, ever.

What I'm most concerned about is all this stuff about how these games are supposed to be a personal experience for the player wrestling with these deep issues of philosophy, psyche and spirituality. What if, as a player, I have no such experience? Have I "failed"? Or has my GM sold me out? Or has the game failed? What if I didn't engage with these things but I still had fun?

You won't find much prescription beyond the intended atmospheric milieu of any given No Dice experience. We test for indulgence, not for intellect. I always find myself hoping that catches on.

17 March 2009

Tuesday Thoughts

Wow, I thought I'd totally updated at the weekend. How wrong a man can be.

Interesting reader mail in from one of the Doodler's cohorts below, pointing out my shortcomings in estimating the impact of bow-based ranged combat. Archers are plenty quick on the draw if competent, apparently.

Been having a quiet couple of weeks. The high point of the last week was playing Mrs Monkey's Western scenario set in Australia. This was pretty awesome, plenty of Western atmosphere and plenty of opportunities to think over the mechanics of a ranged combat system. This has made me think that ranged combat is a matter of priorities, the actual act of firing a missile would appear to be trivial to anyone given sufficient practice (practice being key because it's even hard to fire a gun if you don't fire guns). So the question is, which part of being involved in ranged combat is non-trivial?

The only answer I can come up with is deciding best how your next "burst" of fire is to be employed. Are you going for the kill? Covering someone else's action? Trying to raise a bit of hell? Defending yourself?

Melee combat seems to be centred on a personal experience, ranged combat is more tactical and uses the environment to support its tactics. The trick to the design of these games seems to be in producing atmosphere and giving people a "feel" for the action hook. This is, of course, precisely what I've been aiming for all along, but sometimes the feeling is somewhat elusive.

Received some feedback concerned that if the players are heroes and heroes find it difficult to die where's the edge of your seat excitement? Where's the risk? In campaign play I have developed a technique of giving players cool toys, if they are not careful toys are removed, thus the hero lives, but the hero's advantage is transient. This seems to provide enough ups and downs.

In a one off the chance of a character dying should be communicated at the outset. If chances are high it would always be best to have something for dead characters to do in the remainder of the game.

Of course I have been sat in on story-based games where people liked to be involved at some level but because of the entertainment value of the actual story they didn't mind just sitting back and watching the action unfold. This is the "front seat/back seat" phenomenon that I've noted in the past where players like to vary their involvement depending upon their mood. If you have such a person in your one-off group you could give them some cannon-fodder, let them partake until bored and then kill them off allowing them to leave the circle or just watch the rest of the game.

Anyway, I'm wandering into a territory of talking about revolutionary ideas and I haven't the time or space to go into all that right now. I'll leave the discussion in "food for thought" mode and wander off. Promise I'll update more promptly next time.

9 March 2009

D&D Characters

I know, I know, I'm having a pop at D&D again. I'm going to reiterate that if D&D floats your boat then go for it. It's actually a highly sophisticated dungeon-crawl RPG and I'd prefer to think of people enjoying a D&D campaign than playing hours of WoW. But it's just not role playing. Well, not given any reasonable definition of the words "role" and "playing" when in the context of one another anyway.

This has never been made more apparent to me than in the unfortunate habit I have encountered in some gamers to create what I shall dub the "D&D Character". The D&D Character must satisfy the following brief to be considered thus:

  • Must have a fascinating instant impact or be unusual in some way for examples of class, race, occupation, alignment etc. This feature in a proper story would serve as a hook for the character. In a game where one has to start the adventure with a large degree of presumed incompetence could also explain this hilarious incapability away. For example, if you created a normal everyday hulking warrior with a big sword to kill things with his early incompetence is nothing short of embarrasing. However if Jongar the Allyrian is obsessed with cheese one could point to his failure to perform even the simple tasks of his trade as a being a byproduct of his unhealthy pecadillo.
  • Could have a detailed but largely tertiary back story; thus explaining the cheese obsession. Also it will probably dangle alluring plot hooks for a GM who hardly, if ever, finds a way to work these into the story which wouldn't involve shoehorning, long periods of not using dice or showboating from the player who invented the character. Of course in a story people mill about they come to the fore, they retreat, they circulate. If you had some support for group storytelling instead of a bunch of dice heavy combat rules... ahem.
  • Is designed to always have something to talk about in a one or two-dimensional manner. These are never deep things and are always topics of conversation that can be pulled out for a "character moment" at the drop of a hat e.g. having an imaginary friend, being a bit dodgy and a pointlessly pathological liar, having an obsession with some harmless and often incongruous topic such as toast or flower arranging... yes, yes, or cheese.

The symptom, as is so often the case, points to the disease. Generally speaking I've not met role players who weren't yearning for a part in a game that allowed them to feel like the hero properly. Sure there should be challenge and difficulty otherwise the game is dull but in the end the challenge and difficulty should arise from factors other than the character's blatant incompetence. It's a well worn trope of fiction that a character should be likeable and in heroes capability is likeable.

When you create a character who has to be lame until they've levelled up a few times you necessarily begin to be irritated by them during this process. Making them into a bit of a weirdo accomplishes the twin aims of poking fun at your pathetic character but also gives you a chance to vent your frustrations at a game which promises so much and delivers so little. The D&D character provides a way of letting off steam and having fun in a situation which, despite claims to the contrary, is short on opportunities to do either out of the box.

In fact this tendency also works against the player ever getting that moment in the sun. Even if a GM is adventurous and allows Jongar to encounter the evil master baker who grilled him like so many pieces of medium sliced white when he was naught but a boy the player's already made it quite plain that Jongar's a looney. If you were trying to run a semi-serious campaign Jongar's either got to be less of a looney or the whole encounter is going to end up on a Python-esque route perhaps not entirely inkeeping with the spirit of the game.

I have, on occasion known GMs to bemoan this very thing, when the game turns "silly". It's six of one half a dozen of the other. So Jongar's player is making a mockery of the serious plot, let's face it having to roll 2D6, 1D8 a D20 and a D4 every time Jongar swings his mighty broadsword also makes a mockery of the serious plot, just not in a fun way.

Just as attempting to introduce plot to a board game may be a bit of a morale killer so making merry quips within the "plot" framework is a counter morale boost.

So this dysfunction balances out nicely in that type of game. In a game that has a serious story potential, however, the dysfunction just collapses into broken.

D&D characters are no good in the long haul, five or six episodes and the character's all played out. They don't have subtlety, layers, aspects, they just have furry underpants and an obsession with toast. It all seemed so amusing at the beginning but now? Hmmm.

So next time I'm creating a character concept I will be sure to make sure there is definite dramatic complication in there. Now the story is real I want to be a real character within it. If that's what you've been yearning for in your campaigns, either as a GM or a player maybe it's time you tried to find a solution.

6 March 2009


Gaming has tradititionally been a double-edged hobby. On the one hand you rarely, if ever, meet a weekend gamer, someone who isn't really into the hobby but just does it a bit. If you and another person share the hobby chances are you'll be able to sit down and have some sort of a basis for conversation.

You want to see an example of a hobby where being into it doesn't guarantee social connection look at music. Even if you manage to get two people who claim to love the same sort of music, or even the same band, you can't guarantee that they'd necessarily have much to say to one another. In the field of music people can like the same thing for entirely separate and even mutually incompatible reasons.

Likewise a lot of the really popular pastimes. I think this could explain why people are so slavishly addicted to watching sports. And what are sports and Monday Morning Quarterbacks but gamers by another stripe?

To return to role playing, it has never occurred to most gamers to ask why gaming isn't more popular, even though it inspires such passion from those involved. It stands to reason that if someone is so deeply into something that it owns a portion of their life there must be something to generally recommend it.

Well, I think that happens to be true. I don't know many people who wouldn't get a kick out of some form of role playing. Maybe you don't like a violent martial arts spectacular but a visit to a fairy-tale seaside town sounds awesome, maybe you're not really into slasher movies but a police procedural game would suit you down to the ground. I don't think there's any doubt that there's a role playing experience out there for everyone.

So where is everyone?

Well. This is the double edged part about it. As we get older we gamers realise that there is more to life than being relegated to a trestle table in the corner of some draughty town hall or community centre. There's more to the hobby than "stop having fun, it's time to role play" (yeah, I actually still hear this from time to time *sigh*).

Time to a working guy with a couple of week's holiday and a forty hour a week contract is precious. If a game's going to be uncomfortable then it's just not worth the time.

The final tweaks are hitting No Dice, I'm hoping to finish off the text typesetting at the weekend I also want to add in a couple of notes on this. Role playing is being held back because it's such an effort to make it convenient. Traditionally players have had to fit round the game. Hopefully with No Dice we can start to make people see that it should be the other way round.