Same Phat Channel, Same Phat Time …

April 20, 2015

Episodic RPG play.  It’s not my strength.

So, it was my turn to run something, and I floated Legend of the Burning Sands.  I mentioned to the players that I was going to try to make it more episodic, both to make it easier for people to drop in or drop out for sessions but also to try to be more like Heroes of Rokugan.  Why?  Because I think self-contained sessions have certain advantages.

So, I run my first session.  It could have left off there, but I wanted to introduce an additional NPC.  So, session two was just a second part to session one.  Pretty much at no point have I had a session that didn’t tie into a previous session, usually the one just prior.

I just don’t think in terms of TV episodes.  I think in terms of a continuous narrative that builds upon prior events.  Developing storylines is what waters my camel.

Let’s take NPCs.  My NPCs are often trying to accomplish something because it has been hammered home to me that NPCs without their own thing going on aren’t as deep.  The campaign set up of trying to take out the Caliph and her Khadi obviously requires that the Caliph and Khadi be doing something that impacts the party.  But, the various allies the party has all have their own things going on.  Because that interests me.

I can run a tactical wargame.  I’m a big fan of the HeroQuest boardgame, and I’ve made it somewhat RPGish.  What I struggle with is the idea of running a RPG campaign that uses a RPG system like how D&D and the like are played – videogame RPing.

Because there are so many stories to tell.  I have had so many ideas for characters or scenes for short stories or longer efforts that I’ve never even bothered writing down.  Maybe, I can push myself to write a novel during my lifetime, but it’s so so much easier to write stories while playing or running RPGs because it’s so much more focused than when I’m left to my own devices.

Anyway, getting off topic.  What is good about episodic play besides the ease of handling players dropping in and out?

Less pressure.  Episodic play will tend towards resetting things.  Now, for RPGs, it’s different.  While the narrative might not progress, the PCs will.  D&D will see level increases, as you go from dungeon to dungeon.  HoR sees character improvement and probably rank increases as one plays mods.  But, success/failure/just general impact on the world is muted.  This can not only make the players’ lives easier as they can screw things up and only lose out in XP or goodies or whatever.  This can make the GM’s life much easier by not having to have PC actions change the world much.

Less engagement.  While I find that too much of my play sees players who don’t engage as much as I think they should, by setting the standard to “what you do this session stays in this session”, you don’t need as much engagement.

Less quagmiredom.  Continuing a narrative can mean continuing a story where the party is in some sort of highly problematic situation or some really boring situation.  Sure, a superior GM will figure out how to have fun things prepared no matter what.  I’m not a superior GM.  I don’t have fun options always prepared for every possible player decision.  As a player, I might meta hard to make sure that my PC is doing stuff, but I get players who seem tolerant with doing nothing because their characters wouldn’t do interesting things.  More specifically, when it comes to structure, if the players like having 20% combat, 20% investigation, 20% puzzling, 20% arguing about how every plan someone comes up with is dumb, and 20% joking about Star Wars, then you can consistently plan those breakdowns when coming up with sessions.

When you have a coherent narrative, some things may not make any sense to do, like murdering enemies.  For instance, I had a LBS session planned at a party.  It turned into two sessions (spread over three sessions because someone missed one of the sessions).  In part one, there was nothing to fight, except for sparring or other play fighting.  It was a party.  In session two, there was something going on that had various possibilities for combat, but it was pretty much up to the party to activate any combats.  After a certain point, things seemed to drag, as the players didn’t know what else to do.

Now, not knowing what to do is a separate axis.  But, it connects.  What do I mean?  When you have an episode, the plot of the episode, the results, the set pieces, etc. should all basically be in place.  I’ve only gotten stuck in a few HoR mods in terms of completing the adventures, but I’ve almost always known what I was supposed to do.  I thought it was interesting when a couple of my players thought of my Gaki Mura campaign as a sandbox.  I didn’t think of it that way, but I could be wrong.  While having a preplanned plot is against the idea of sandboxes, I do go light on forcing my players into the plot much of the time.  And.  I expect players to have their own interests in where to take things.  I don’t mean that I expect every player to have a non-party goal or to have an idea what the PC’s story arc should be.  I just expect players to engage with the world to the point that their characters have things they want to accomplish to where the players help shape the direction the campaign goes in.

Using LBS as an example, so the PCs want to get rid of the Caliph – what’s their plan for doing that?  I’ve yet to get any input on how they would accomplish that.  They could go intrigue/politics to remove them from power, go combat (sort of, kind of hard to fight things that cannot be destroyed, but you could just imprison them), explore (to find their hearts), “magic” (find a power great enough that it can take out indestructible “humans”), get them to fight each other (and take it out into the desert), or whatever.  If they don’t do something, then that aspect of the campaign remains status quo.  Now, I have things in mind that don’t relate to this core campaign element, but the players don’t seem to have any sense of those, either, partially because I’m too subtle, partially because of lack of curiosity.  Yes, a selling point of this campaign was to educate the players on the setting, so we can just have weekly stuff happen that doesn’t really blow up Medinaat al-Salaam.

Meanwhile, there are so many ways to take advantage of things to move their supposed agenda.  They have a relatively large number of allies that they don’t ever ask anything of.  They don’t make any effort to learn about their enemies.  They don’t make any effort to really change anything about the world.  What burned me out on running the Gaki Mura campaign was this precise lack of player input into the campaign, where every session felt like it was just me coming up with something happening to the PCs.  I very much try not to just dictate events to players as that’s supposedly a bad thing – taking agency away from players.

So, maybe the campaign should be far more episodic.  Maybe it should just be “The Medinaat al-Salaam Files”, where the Caliph is always the sheriff/Nazis/Gargamel, where the Betty and Veronica of the campaign are always waiting for the PCs to take interest, etc.  Except, I suck at that, and it will bore me silly to not have some sort of progressing narrative.


Definitely Good and Evil

December 22, 2014

For a while, I thought it was easier to define evil than good.  Evil to me was intentionally causing others to suffer, where unintentional causing of suffering to others was more complicated.  But, what was good?  The lack of causing suffering not so good.  Relieving suffering in others?  Yeah, sure.  But, there was something not terribly clear about self vs. others.

Not long ago, for whatever reason, I was thinking about how obvious good is as determined by humanity.  More specifically, humanity has produced entertainment and that entertainment makes good easy.  Good is helping others.  The only thing good has to do with the self is that if you suffer to do more for others, you are more gooder.

Philosophers can debate the rationale for this, but it’s ubiquitous.  Heroes sacrifice themselves so that others, even the baddies, gain more/suffer less.  A trope, because apparently it’s impossible to avoid using the term trope anymore, is that only the heroes are in the know and knowing sucks because horror, but it’s to save/protect innocents.  It’s always about someone else.

Which makes sense in that society has an incentive to encourage helping others as that makes for more society.  D&D originally just had Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic, whether because it took inspiration from Moorcock’s and others’ use of Law vs. Chaos or because it realized that adventurers in games don’t tend towards good or evil but do tend towards collaboration (to varying degrees from what I’ve seen) or schism, where being some loner monster fits the Chaotic side.

Okay, so once you settle on good = do stuff for others and the more it sucks for you the more gooder and evil = cause others to suffer and the more you enjoy it the more eviler, what then?

RPG parties are often dysfunctional.  One way that they can end up being so is that some folks want to be good guys and some folks don’t.  I personally have a hard time with the don’t.  It’s not that I can’t see settings where the protagonists aren’t goodies, it’s that I don’t see the point in playing any of those settings.

This lack of interest in being the goodies, meanwhile, kills certain settings.  Star Wars, in my experience is an awful setting for role-playing because so few people embrace being a goodie.  Superhero campaigns aren’t something I’ve gotten to experience, but I think my lack of experience with them has something to do with the lack of interest in people playing goodies.  I’ve found fantasy role-playing to be problematic because good just gets thrown off the cliff so regularly.

There are some who believe good is boring.  I don’t know how that’s the case when the vast majority of fantasy and other genres that RPGs set in have goodies as protagonists.  Can read a book, watch a TV show or movie, watch anime – helping others is all the rage.  Nevermind that the actual amount of getting into character I find to be much less than the looking up of numbers on character sheets in my play, so why spend what little time role-playing as a jerk?

Maybe it comes down to thinking being a goodie is simplistic or, even, difficult.  Ha ha, you are a naive goodie while I’m a badass ninja with my own code.

Well, different strokes for different blokes.  I find not being good to be hollow in my play.  If I’m not trying to help someone or make the world a better place, why do I care about anything?  Any set up where you are just trying to survive or trying to get rich or whatever just seems like a setup more suited for a boardgame, where mechanics can just rule the day.

Great, why does this matter now?

I might end up running Legend of the Burning Sands.  There are a lot of factions.  There are way more factions than L5R.  Unlike L5R, there’s no standard for good (essentially Honor in Rokugan, Integrity is the same mechanic but it doesn’t feel like a standard).  Every faction has its own issues, which makes for a much more realismish and complex milieu.  I can easily anticipate that the party won’t be good if the players are left to build their own characters.

One of my problems with Mechwarrior is that I don’t feel like anyone is good in the setting, it’s all point of view based.  That sort of realistic, shades of grey morality just defeats any sort of moral component to a campaign.  Many mech pilots righteously battle in character … and I just think “Why would anyone think they have moral high ground?”

As said, I have a hard time seeing playing a supers game except online because supers games, more than other settings, just don’t make any sense unless you are willing to embrace good.  I would say Star Wars games almost never end up making sense for the same reason, but I think I already said that.

Shadowrun, I think, is supposed to be a heist game.  Again, at the point where good is meaningless, the game becomes mechanical to me.  Gritty space games strike me the same way – I’m never trying to do good, so why do I care what I’m doing?

Feng Shui assumes goodness.  Maybe that’s why I like it so much.  Players of the game seem to buy into the idea that they are goodies.

Call of Cthulhu seems to me to be run with the intention of showing how PCs can be destroyed no matter what they do.

Vampire is kind of funny because I’ve seen it played a number of times where the PCs are goodies, maybe because the setting does so much to bring up those that are worst.  In our Conan play, we moved in and out of goodness, sometimes being quite selfish or even awful, but, as little time as we may have spent being good, it felt like we would sometimes be heroic.  I guess it was a game/campaign in which moral complexity actually arose, built up over years of trying to figure out who our characters actually were and what we were trying to accomplish.  For some, it was self-interested prick who learns to give a damn, though, for me, it was more dashing hero who ends up doing horrible things at times.  Anyway, I always much more enjoyed the sessions when I got to be heroic.

Heroic.  That’s a good word to bring up, some 900+ words in.  I always want to play heroic characters in RPGs.  Heroes are good.  They suffer so that others don’t or suffer less.  I could have avoided using goodie and just used hero this whole time, I suppose.

Anyway, I know what I like.  The question becomes how to end up playing or running the games I like.  Is it a conversation with the players beforehand?  Yeah, I think that’s an obvious step.  Is it choosing genres that are heroic?  Yeah, that helps, though I kind of expect the PCs to be heroic in every genre.  I kind of question how much enthusiasm I’ll have for LBS if the players gravitate to the darker elements.

Because it can really suck when some players want to do one thing and others don’t.  Just as much as some players hate social challenges or combat or investigating or sneaking or whatever, some players hate having no moral compass … and, I suppose, some players hate having one.  What I’ve found with some groups is that what annoys players the most are loose cannons, whether those loose cannons are Chaotic Good or Chaotic Evil.  Gets back to how Lawful/Chaotic is not so bad for gaming.

I just had another thought.  I think I so often embrace the idea of playing a sidekick to another PC or to the party because of one of two reasons:  either the sidekick is being good by helping someone else or the party is not good/heroic and being a sidekick removes any sort of feeling of responsibility for the party’s actions.  “Master, I have procured for you many more sacrifices so that we can more effectively release Hell on Earth.  I do good, right?”