September 06, 2005

First session angst

I hate running first sessions. Afterwards I almost always feel sick with tension and disappointment.

Looking at it rationally, I actually think tonight went better than most of my first sessions, thanks entirely to the players, who pretty much ran their own "group bonding" subplot. And we were able to introduce some of the mysteries and secrets of the initial NPCs and setting, some of them as part of the player-driven subplot, some of them through external plot. This is probably an improvement on my usual record of stuttering open plotline or artificial pressure cooker.

I think the tension and disappointment is probably a kind of performance anxiety. Naturally one enters a game with high aspirations, and one wants to make a great showing right from the start, but the reality is that the first couple of sessions are likely to involve an awful lot of awkward, stumbling attempts to get second gear to catch. (Yes, I know, but right now I don't feel up to coming up with an unmixed metaphor.)

Anyway, I shouldn't take the angst too seriously. I can't think of a successful game I've run where the first session hasn't left me feeling like I've let the game down. On the other hand, I've run a load of convention games, where the game has to catch fire in the first twenty minutes, keep up the momentum for anywhere from three to eight hours, and deliver a satisfactory but still sequel-friendly wrap-up -- all this despite the players never having met before. I suppose in a con game the GM can generally tailor the characters to gear nicely and the plot to burn "twice as bright but half as long"; but still, I wish I could bring that same dynamic to a campaign kickoff.

Perhaps this is why the artificial pressure cooker works so well. It imposes a fast-moving dynamic on the group, but disassociates it from the broader situation, so that the APC subplot can be resolved without taking away from the main plotline. By the time the group gets onto the slower main plotline, the APC sessions have established momentum and group dynamic, and have given the group a shared victory or defeat. Ideally, the APC subplot is linked to the main plotline, so that resolving the APC draws the characters not only (a) together but also (b) into the ghastly undertow of the greater plot. Looking back, I begin to suspect that most of my successful games have involved an APC at some point, even if not as the starting scenario.

And you know what this means? It means roleplayers may have something to learn from the artificial teambuilding dogma of the management consultants and the HR wonks. And that really does cause me angst.

September 6, 2005 in Games | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 31, 2005

Ever seem in the same room together?

It will come as no surprise to anyone that Jen and I came up with almost identical results on the Law's Game Style quiz.

August 31, 2005 in Games | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 07, 2005

Conflict resolution in superhero RPGs

Mash is not impressed with the state of superhero RPG systems: "Combats drag on, and on, and on, without resolution. It's hard to maintain enthusiasm for a fight between two characters which lasts more than, say, half a dozen exchanges. Supers games seem to have about a dozen exchanges and often with no noticeable outcome due to damage soaking."

Good call Mash. It's been twenty years since Watchmen; does anybody really still think the superhero genre is about the fighting? Look at a modern superhero comic like Powers, or even the venerable Astro City: how many pages are devoted to fight sequences? Fights are a necessary part of the superhero genre, but they're a means to a storytelling end; when the fight takes over from the story, something's gone wrong.

By a strange coincidence, an idea for a short superhero campaign popped into my head this morning. It would be a campaign in which the characters' superheroic exploits -- and their success or failure -- would be pivotal; but because of their consequences and side-effects, not because of the means by which that success or failure came about. A detailed, "combat-style" system like Champions or Golden Heroes would have been complete overkill. We'd have spent 2 hours and 55 minutes of every session on slugfesting, and had only five minutes left for the actual content.

By another strange coincidence, I was lucky enough to snag a slot yesterday in Mike Sands' Confusion game, 'Hostile Waters.' Mike's system, The Devil & The Deep, abandons traditional task resolution for "scene level" resolution of conflict. It's conceptually similar to what he and Luke patiently explain to me here, here and here, in the context of Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard, but fixes the bugs in that system and is consequently much cleaner, clearer and more plausible in narrative terms.

Seems to me that something like Mike's system, mutatis mutandis, is absolutely spot-on for superhero conflict. The heroes and villains get to show off their powers as they see fit, and to take whatever risks they are willing to take. Plenty of flavour, plenty of action, plenty of uncertainty. Maybe the heroes win, maybe they have a nasty setback. Maybe, in order to stop the villains, they injure or kill an innocent. Maybe -- heaven forbid -- they mess up so badly that the villains are actually able to carry out their plan. In a Sandsian system, all the narrative, all the colour, leads up to a quick, efficient scene-as-a-whole resolution, instead of occupying half the gametime on details of "your energy blast misses the villain by (roll roll roll) 2.8 centimetres and badly singes Mrs Kowalski's (roll roll roll) left hand curtain." We can then get on to dealing with the interesting bit, namely the consequences of the conflict for the superheroes themselves.

I think this would work really well. The whole "abilities and powers" thing remains really important and gives a whole load of flavour to the narrative, but it frees up a whole lot of playing time from mechanical dice-rolling, enabling games to focus on character development, sophisticated plot, or theme development without getting bogged down.

August 7, 2005 in Games | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 06, 2005

Vincent Baker, Dogs in the Vineyard

Is it unfair to judge a RPG based on two hours' experience with a GM who's never run the game before? Well, Dogs in the Vineyard outright encourages such quick-draw judgements, and heck, boy, he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.

Actually, my overall impression of the game was pretty positive. Mike Sands, the GM, has posted a session account and some of his reflections, but I'll put it in my own terms anyway.

Dogs in the Vineyard is set in a religious Wild West environment, with the player characters as the enforcers of the religion. It's based on the early settlement of Utah by the Mormon Church, but carefully decoupled from any real-world religion. This is both an advantage, as it allows the group to be flexible about the teachings of the religion (and saves doctrinal character players from having to know any real religion), and a disadvantage, as the teachings the characters are meant to be enforcing are meant to be fundamental but, except for trivial cases, actually end up having to be worked out on the spur of the moment. (Our GM was wise enough to stick to trivial cases. And, to be fair, the source book does provide enough structure that a group can improvise around it without wrecking the feel of the thing.)

The combination of Western setting and fundamentalist religion works really well. There's a strong Johnny Cash vibe to the whole thing, something morally uncompromising amidst stark, dusty landscapes. It's a striking game world, possibly the most original and attention-grabbing I've seen since the original Deadlands. It's very easy to get into the spirit of the thing.

However, the details of the Dogs setup are potentially problematic. The characters, as I understand it, have essentially divine authority: whatever they judge, that's the Word of God. Whoa back. Even Paranoia has more checks and balances than this. Seems to me if our group had "solved" the problem by proclaiming the entire village riddled with sin and massacring every single person within it, we could still have just walked away without a blemish on our records, insisting that this was God's Judgment made manifest to us.

This problem seems to be exacerbated by a game mechanism called "demonic influence." Our game ended with us interrogating a suspect. The interrogation ended when one PC opened fire. We then learned that the more time we gave the villain to argue his case, the more demonic influence he would have had in the final conflict. If this was the author's intention, the only sane policy for a Dog is to shoot first and ask questions afterwards: trying to make sure you've correctly identified the guilty party is unnecessary at best (since your judgments are unquestionable) and harmful at worst.

In fact the whole thing had a whiff of Paranoia about it. The source book describes how corruption progresses in an individual or community: from the simple flaw of pride at first, through to sinfulness and then to outright heresy and consorting with demons. It is very easy to find examples of pride or sin in NPCs', or indeed fellow PCs', ordinary behaviour, if that's what you choose to do; and having caught a whiff of pride, why risk allowing it to fester and develop? Better to shoot it quick and claim divine authority. Our group certainly did not altogether avoid the urge to issue wild accusations, though we did manage to avoid addressing each other as "Citizen" or urging NPCs to "report for termination immediately."

On the plus side, and again like Paranoia or Werewolf, the "troubleshooting team" setup makes it very easy to get characters together and keep them together no matter what.

Finally, the system is innovative but appears fundamentally broken. The basic idea is that each side rolls a bucket of dice for all their applicable traits. The first side then "raises" any two dice. The second side has to "see" (match) that total from its dice: if it can match it with one die, it wins, with two dice, there's no effect, with three or more dice, it incurs that many dice of "fallout." The two sides then swap and another "raise" is carried out from the remaining dice. This is pretty simple and pretty neat.

The problem is that "all their applicable traits" clause. Firstly, this encourages abusively wide applicability. Any sane munchkin will throw all their character generation points into a trait called something like "determined to succeed at anything I do." Then whenever anything is going against them they can go, "Ooh, I'm determined to hit him with my blunderbuss / win the Eagle Falls Branch waltzing competition / ram a cucumber up Satan's butt -- can I roll my extra dice now please?"

Secondly, and more seriously, it requires people to cast around for ways of bringing new dice into a conflict. This appears to be an explicit aim of the design ("escalation"), but for me it is deeply distorting. Suppose you're sat up a tree sniping at a bad guy. Once you've fired once, you've got all your stealth and gunplay dice: you don't need to keep sniping to hang on to them. Instead, you're better off leaping out of the tree and hitting the guy with a stick, because then you not only get to keep your stealth and gunplay dice, you get to add your leaping and drubbing dice. And once you've had a go with the stick, throw it away quick as you can, so you can get your unarmed combat dice to bear as well. Similarly -- and I've seen this problem in HeroQuest too -- the system tempts players to waste time trying to bring irrelevancies to bear: "if I quote the Book of Jeremiah while shooting him, can I add my rhetoric dice please?" The negotiation slows things down and the introduction of irrelevancies for skill reasons makes conflicts artificial.

Overall? The system problems need fixing, because they interfere with the game, but as with most system problems, this is easily done by tweaking the system or by GM clampdown. The Paranoia-without-the-checks-and-balances-isms may or may not prove to be a problem long term: one trial game is not enough to say. It would certainly be a shame if the game gave too much encouragement to the "shoot first and ask questions later" approach: the setting is wonderfully atmospheric, imaginative and innovative, and it deserves to be explored in depth, not just used for target practice. Well worth a look.

April 6, 2005 in Games | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

May 01, 2004

A practical approach to RPG criticism

Adam Tinworth: "The roleplaying industry lacks any serious attempt to review RPGs well... In the absence of a core of good, respected, regular reviewers, they have to turn to the screeching howler monkeys of the internet, screaming their low value opinions into the digital world."

Adam argues for "a single source of good, edited, commissioned reviews run by skilled people and provided by a team of experienced gamers and writers." I'm not sure this is practical. It takes time and effort to deliver the kind of analysis that Adam wants, something that few experienced gamers and writers, with many other calls on their time, would be able to commit to.

That's not to say that few people could or would deliver good reviews or criticism. The problem with Adam's proposal, I think, is that it puts the onus on a small circle of people. If the community wants "Basements and Bugbears" reviewed, the editors have to commission someone to review "Basements and Bugbears." This is hard work for both the editors and the reviewer. Whereas I might pick the game up on the off-chance, and post a review because I think there are points of interest, or just because I want to warn people off.

Unfortunately, if I post that review here, Adam won't know about it because he won't know to come here. Whereas if I post it in a well-trafficked forum, he won't know about it because he wisely avoids screeching howler monkeys. There's little incentive for me to write a review nobody will read, and there's no value to readers in reviews they can't find.

How do we provide a common location where trusted writers can find an audience, and readers can find a source of trustworthy writers? Aggregation.

Specifically, moderated aggregation. There clearly needs to be editorial control, otherwise the screeching howler monkeys just hurl their faeces down the aggregated feed instead of in their nasty little forums. But aggregation steps the role down from commissioning to moderation, and with a suitable definition of the feed the traffic should remain fairly low. Sure, from a critical point of view it's not as good as a rigorous editorial process, but it has the benefit that it might actually maintain a flow of content.

Will the howler monkeys screech like crazy about elitists and exclusion and so on? Hell yes. Do I care? Hell no. I've read Slashdot. Nothing the screeching howler monkeys can do or say will impress me now.

The technology is out there. RSS enables the establishment of centralised aggregator sites and aggregated feeds, and the principle of moderated aggregation has been demonstrated by conference aggregator sites like pdcbloggers.

My goodness, I'm almost enthused to start writing about RPGs again. Make room for one more screeching howler monkey, Adam.

May 1, 2004 in Games | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack