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Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Illuminating character through conflict: or, effective challenge design in live games

I apologise for the sketchy nature of today's post, but I was up until two in the morning prepping for a live game I'm going to be running this weekend. I've also been working on a series of posts about Lovecraft movies over at Bad Movie Marathon, so check those out if you're interested in the ... uneven history of Lovecraft films.

Conversations over the last weekend have reminded me that there are quite a lot of people who've never written this kind of game before, and I thought I'd write about that process. This is naturally going to be kind of an incomplete discussion, because keeping it restrained is difficult; it naturally wants to drift off into related topics and I just don't have all day.

Where's the fun? 

I am on record as not being interested in playing certain types of game at all -- not because I don't think they are fun in some abstract, universal sense but because the thing that is fun about them isn't fun for me, at least not usually. Different games have different things that are fun about them. Of course, most games have multiple fun things, but there are usually one or two main ones.

The main question you need to ask yourself is: is the fun thing about this game the consequences of a challenge or the act of resolving a challenge?

Let's take a few examples:


  • In Super Mario Brothers, the fun comes from the act of resolving a challenge. The princess and the turtle are all well and good, but what the game is about is the feeling of perfect, harmonious flow you get when you're racing through a level. 
  • In HeroQuest 2nd ed, the fun comes from the content and consequences of the challenge. I really want to know whether uncle Boriban is going to take my cows, and the resolution system is more or less just a simple way of reaching an answer to that question in a way that feels true to the characters. 
So involved with this character.

Now, that's not to say that you don't want both elements. Obviously, no one is going "Oh yeah, Hitler Quest has bitchin' shooting mechanics; no one pays attention to the fact that you're playing an SS officer." In fact, the setting is crapping all over the play experience. Some minimal level of both is required, and a high level of both is desirable. 

In Castle Falkenstein, for example, the mechanics demand a character choice from me -- how badly do I want Uncle Boriban not to take my cows? In a successfully-designed field LARP, I think, there should also be strong elements of both. Exploring a fantastic world and fighting dudes with a sword is just plain old fun by itself -- I imagine, having never done it -- but it's more fun if those dudes are interesting and you care about the stakes of the fight, just as it's more fun to rescue the princess from Bowser than it is to get to the end and, I dunno, be able to compare your time to your previous runs. 

Practical design consequences

Now, you think I'm about to say that the mechanics of the World of Darkness games (which I have previously referred to as "the worst possible system," drowning in complexity without any increase in choice or realism) are so bad that the focus of design has to be on the characters and their moral choices. And that's ... sort of true. But it's not the whole story. 

Let's back up a sec to the role of plot in a large, social game. This applies mainly to your World of Darkness type games, but you can also think about it in terms of any game where there are both "outward" procedural plots and a lot of "inward" social interaction. 

(Now in the late 90s and even into the modern day, "plot" properly so-called was a sore point among World of Darkness gamers. Some craved it, and felt that any part of gameplay that wasn't "plot" -- that is, interaction between characters -- was just a sort of window-dressing meant to give colour to the plot. Others rejected it, and felt that any hint of non-player-generated conflict was missing the point. There was a certain amount of snobbery in both directions. Still is, although I haven't noticed it so much lately.) 

In a successful game, "plot" or "away missions" or whatever you want to call them feed back into the social environment; they have consequences on social play, and it has consequences on them. In too many cases, "plot" is sterile, explicitly focused on trying to keep the social space isolated from the rest of the world (put a pin in this question: because social players scorn "plot" and consider it intrusive?). But it doesn't have to be this way. In a well-run game, "plot" is thematically tied to the conflicts, both internal and interpersonal, that the characters have. So a new plot event should change the game's emotional dynamic. Oh man, they finally got Zergathrax? There but for the grace of God go I. 

Who's next, Insectobastard? It really makes ya think.

Most GMs tend to consider one of the sides of the game superfluous -- they all say that the social side is the really important one, but in my experience the actual split is probably about 50/50. Or maybe they just suck at one of the two modes, and the question is one of skill, not priority (running games is a skill, or more accurately a set of skills, and you can be better or worse). But by focusing on both sides, you can improve your game. 

Some tips

So let's ask ourselves some diagnostic questions: 
  • How does this plot relate to the overall themes or questions of the game? 
  • What fun choices do the players get to make in this scenario? 
Now, me personally, I very seldom write about theme or colour stuff except at the very beginning of a campaign, when I fill a page or two with imagery and sort of emotional or tonal notes. Having done that, I feel like I'm probably in the right place; I don't think I make a lot of bad thematic choices in my games (well, not inadvertently, anyway). Some people like to really sit down and think about theme and mood in a way that I don't. 

In theory, anyway, my game should already have something that links procedural goals with thematic elements: it's called a setting. For a lot of people, though, the joy of subcreation replaces any thinking about this process, presumably because they've read a lot of stuff about worldbuilding? I don't know. 

How do I improve my handling of thematic elements in "procedural" sequences? Mostly it's practice and observation, but I would do a few things: 
  • Watch/read some kind of adventure fiction in which the two are strongly intertwined (Buffy yes, Spider-Man yes, The Wire yes -- stipulating it's not really adventure fiction -- James Bond not so much). Take notes on thematic relevance of procedural stuff. This is a solved problem. 
  • Create a list of setting elements relevant to thematic content at the beginning of the campaign. For instance, a lot of my games in the last few years have had issues of secrecy, loyalty and feeling helpless in the face of greater powers. So Cold War stuff keeps coming up. 
  • Honestly, most of this is solved by developing a setting in a coherent way. I don't mean that everything has to be rigorously in service to an agenda; after a while, you should be able to do this and have it feel natural. 
And how about improving procedural stuff? Again, this is a particular problem for a large-scale game, because it necessarily lacks the flexibility about rules that is the hallmark of a good tabletop session. But seriously, it's not that hard: 
  • Treat rules as tools rather than procedures. 
  • Never present a problem with only one solution. 
  • Ground procedural challenges in detailed, plausible description, both of environments and of characters. 
  • Don't run fights where the outcome is certain. 
  • Remember that there are fight outcomes other than "you win" or "you lose."
A quandary

Remember when I said that GMing was a skill and that people could be good at it? Like any skill, it takes a combination of practice and good teaching. But this post, frankly, is an example of bad teaching. It's so vague. It's tough to talk about particular things to improve when you worry that you'll be telling your audience something they already know or putting someone's shit in the street. Not sure how to resolve that; your advice is appreciated. 

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