Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Algebra of Setting in RPGs

I'm going to go out on a limb here and represent protagonist play (or thematic play or narrativist play, if you prefer) as a mathematical equation: Setting + Situation + Player = Story.

But where's character, you ask? Well that gets into what I want to do with this post. I'm going to focus in on setting here. I may explore situation at a later date, but for now, I think Chris Chinn has got it covered. And player? Well, I think that's all over what's happening in the Indie blogosphere and at The Forge. But maybe we'll revisit down the road in a more focused way.

So let's look at Setting. To continue our little RPG algebra: Color + Character + System = Setting.

I probably put color first because I want to start trouble. I think color is probably the element of setting that most gamers value most (if dollars spent are any indication; see below), and at the same time, I think it is the least important of the three (though still essential!).

Before I do anything else, I need to define what I mean by color. Color consists of the details that allow the participants in the game to imagine a location and how it works. It's the stuff that makes us feel as if we're there. When we describe the leaves of the trees in the elven forest, the population of a village, the creaking churn of the watermill wheel, the clothes your character is wearing, or the manner of succession for the kingdom, that's color.

One of my favorite Robert E. Howard Conan stories is Red Nails (if you haven't read it, I urge you to follow the link and read it now. It's good stuff!) Howard is a master at throwing in bits of color that flavor everything: the dragons in the forest, Derketa's apples, the roofed city of Xotalanc, the Door of the Eagle, and the black pillar with its red nails. The details are cool, but they're not the soul of the story. We could remove those details and completely replace them and it wouldn't alter the core story, although it would affect the feel.

In RPGs, color is introduced by players and GMs to fill in the gaps and smooth out the seams in the imagined environment we create together. Those details are integral to making the play environment feel real to us, but they don't really serve any other purpose and the game won't fall apart if they're not there, though parts might feel a little flat. Situation can grow out of color (like the method of a kingdom's succession), if the players become interested. That's the point at which we stray over into Chris Chinn's Flag framing. Mostly, though, color remains color.

In 2001, Ron Edwards fired a shot at a little RPG sacred cow called scenario when he released The Sorcerer's Soul, a supplement for his game Sorcerer.

The shot took the form of his technique for Relationship Mapping, in which you graphically map out sex and blood relationships between NPCs in a game (with lines of obligation as secondary ties). While Relationship Mapping's primary purpose is to prep for scenarios (for which, see Chris' excellent work), it also makes a strong statement: Characters are the most important aspect of setting in a session (mostly).

Not the description of room 21, not the population of the village of Mistmere, and not the type of trees in the elven kingdom. That's all color. But the stuff that really sees use is all about characters.

In "Red Nails," Derketa's apples, the dragons in the forest, the roofed city of Xotalanc, and the rest really set the atmosphere. But the meat of the story stuff is about Valeria, Techotl, Burning Skull, Olmec, Tascela and Tolkemec. Everything else is incidental, dashed off in just a line or two of prose. Those characters and the ties that bind them are the elements that make the story work, and are also what would make "Red Nails" a playable and awesome RPG scenario (I've done it and it rocks!).

The relationships between characters draw us in as people and they make situations "grabby." Spoiler alert for those that didn't take my advice and read "Red Nails" earlier: When it is revealed that Tascela has ordered Olmec killed in a horrible way, it kicks us in the guts because they were lovers. When Tolkemec takes his vengeance, the depth of his hatred makes sense to us because of his love ties to Tascela. The whole feud fills us with horror when we realize that the two tribes are essentially one large, dysfunctional family that has spent decades murdering, raping, and torturing each other in the dark. And to place a protagonist in context: When Conan and Valeria arrive, their very presence throws this whole crazy, fucked up culture into a frenzy because it topples the status quo.

Or, if we look at The Lord of the Rings, relationships are what drive our interest in Aragorn-Arwen-Elrond, or Boromir-Faramir-Denethor, or Arwen-Aragorn-Eowyn-Faramir, or Eowyn-Eomer-Theoden. Layer on obligations and the tensions leap out at us.

In protagonist play, dealing with this stuff and the way situation affects the web of relationships is the core of play.

I believe this stuff points to a failure in many of the RPG setting books that so many gamers buy. Mostly, they seem to be pure color. In order to become more than that, they must generate investment by all the players involved (it's not enough to just get the GM invested), and the group must then see the way to translate that color into situation.

I suspect but certainly can't prove that only rare groups are able to generate anything more than casual investment from details provided by such setting material. I think some Tekumel, Glorantha, Harn and Middle Earth fans who are really, really jazzed about the settings and make them core features of play may be able to do it. For the most part, though, I think those bits of color contained in such books are not enough. In my experience, only the broadest strokes of color from such books get used in most actual RPG sessions. The rest never actually enter the shared imagined space (SIS), but get filled in retroactively by individual players according to their investment in the setting. (This paragraph and the one preceding it are all conjecture, by the way. Feel free to tear them apart -- as if you need an invitation.)

Can you sense the big, fat except lurking here?

Except when that setting color is reinforced by mechanics.

Mechanical details bring setting color to the forefront in a way that color introduced by players and GMs alone does not.

For instance, in Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard, buttes and snowy mountains are pretty easy to forget about when playing, but the fact that life is never more than a few words away from the greasy smoke of black powder is in your face at all times through the escalation mechanics. The fact that these people are your kin is in your face at all times through the spent (and unspent) relationship dice. Your authority and stature as a Dog is in your face every time you call on your Coat's dice in a conflict. That stuff is potent setting.

In Burning Wheel, life is cheap and blood spills easily because of the Fight! and Injury mechanics. Magic is potent as hell according to the spells and dangerous to the caster according to the Tax rules. Miracles are incredibly potent and extremely rare, according to the Faith rules. Grief crushes elves who see too much according to the Grief rules. Words are weapons as potent or more potent than steel, according to the Duel of Wits. Nobles and others who actually own land are wealthy and privileged, while peasants are poor and probably half-starved, due to the Resources and Lifestyle Maintenance rules.

In Conspiracy of Shadows, everyone feels the weight of impending doom that hangs over everything, due to the Doom mechanics. We all know that trust in your fellows is essential for survival and will lead to an inevitable knife in the back, due to the Trust mechanics. We know that dark, ugly magic lurks just below the surface, and Taint will inevitably corrupt those who use it, due to the Witchblood and Taint mechanics.

These bits of color are reinforced over and over again as we turn to the rules to resolve what's happening in play. They become the most potent color in the game.

So what to do with all of this? As designers, I think it provides a few core principles that we should consider when creating:
1. We need to determine what color is essential to expressing what the game is about and what color simply exists to provide flavor and texture to the experience of the game.
2. Color that is essential to what the game is about should be expressed in mechanics.
3. Relationships seem to be fundamental to protagonist play and are key to explaining how to build play with our games.
4. Pure color gets players excited. Even if it's not central to play, it's important and shouldn't be neglected.

For players of RPGs (including GMs), I think it also provides a few core principles:
1. System Matters. Pick the right one for the job. It's important to pay attention to the things that a game's mechanics encourage or discourage.
2. When prepping for a game, allocate the majority of your time for developing NPCs and their relationships.
3. Don't neglect color either. Color shores up the SIS; it's the mortar of the imagination.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Manifesto Games and Our Pole Star

Are you familiar with Greg Costikyan's Manifesto Games? It's a new venture he launched in September with his partner, Dr. Johnny L. Wilson.

But Greg's all about video games these days, right? What am I doing talking about this here? Well, those of us who have spent time at The Forge in the past few years ought to appreciate what he's trying to do. He wants to build a strong indie scene for video games.

From 'Designer X's' Scratchware Manifesto:
The machinery of gaming has run amok.

Instead of serving creative vision, it suppresses it. Instead of encouraging innovation, it represses it. Instead of taking its cue from our most imaginative minds, it takes its cue from the latest month's PC Data list. Instead of rewarding those who succeed, it penalizes them with development budgets so high and royalties so low that there can be no reward for creators. Instead of ascribing credit to those who deserve it, it seeks to associate success with the corporate machine.

It is time for revolution.

And from Greg's Gaming Needs an Indy Label:

But we need more. We need a company committed to publishing truly original, offbeat, cool product and building the channel for its distribution--instead of shoveling the same old crap to the same old stores.

Gaming needs an indy label. For the sake of its own health, to act as basic R&D for the entire field, to find new gaming styles that can attract a large audience. Because development costs continue to spiral upward faster than unit sales and we have to find a way to break that iron cycle. But most important, because I'm tired of the same old same old and want to play something really cool and new.

These ideas, I think, mirror what many of us who have participated at The Forge or worked on the games discussed there feel about table-top, pen-and-paper role-playing games. Perhaps attracting a large audience is not at the fore of our thinking (though I doubt we would turn up our noses at one), but the spirit rings true.

So, we've managed, with the help of guys that really broke ground, like Ron, to lay a foundation. We've found ways to make games ourselves without selling our IP to others, to establish the beginnings of a language for discussing what it is that we're doing and trying to do, to get the product out there to people that play, and to begin marketing that product to the people that are open to it.

Clearly it's possible for us to do all of these things better. And maybe there are other things we haven't even begun to address yet. So that's the purpose of this post, to ask the questions: what's next for us as a movement of people that are trying to create and innovate and as people running our own businesses? What do we need to do to improve? How do we market better? How do we distribute our product better?

This is just a brainstorm. Any and all ideas are welcome.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Immersionism, Accepted Wisdom and Internal Conflict

"Let's go back to the jumping-off place here, then, which is playing your character in another character's memory. Really what jazzes me about it is that it's a trick like frickin' Matt Wilson's trick: it makes us think of our characters as characters, so we approach our stories as stories, not as made-up journalism."
Vincent reminded me of a post I promised months ago about internal conflict in roleplaying games. I want to see more about what Vincent means by "made-up journalism" as that's not necessarily the phrase that I would use. I would instead propose that it makes us think of our characters as characters, rather than seeing our characters as people. That is, independent people with their own existences outside of us, the people that play them. And yeah, that means I'm diving into the whole, ugly immersion argument.

So, for years, in roleplaying, the accepted wisdom was that immersion was the be-all-and-end-all of roleplaying. Getting into character was the most prized skill of any roleplayer, and he that could go more deeply into character was a better roleplayer. The idea is still common today, and is especially strong among LARPers. The Turku School of Roleplaying, based in Finland, has taken the immersionist idea to great lengths.

Obviously the idea of deep immersion holds great appeal for many players. I can't deny that. But I don't accept that it's the be-all-and-end-all of roleplaying either. I think getting into my character's skin is fun at times, but if I am constantly experiencing my character's life during play, I can't simultaneously appreciate his story.

In other words, I'm suggesting that I can't 'be' my character and think of him as a character in a story at the same time. And generally, I'd rather think of my character as a character in a story most of the time. That allows me to place him in situations that would be terrifying or traumatizing for him, but entertaining for me: I will unhesitatingly put him into the sort of blood and guts conflicts that characters in stories get embroiled in, and real people try like hell to avoid. It also allows me to place him and his actions in relation to the other players (including the GM) and their characters. When I keep an idea of him as a character rather than a person, then I retain the awareness necessary to use him to set up something interesting for a fellow player's character.

The latter is especially important to me. I find that I enjoy games the most when everyone at the table is conscious of and invested in all the protagonists (player characters) and their story arcs. So Mayuran is just as interested in seeing Alexander's character's story play out in a satisfying way as Alexander is. And they're both invested in the shape of my character's story. It's a very different experience than deep immersion, but I find the resulting play to be more entertaining and more rewarding.

And the crux of it is communication. The players need to be in constant communication, as players, about what they are liking and not liking, whether they feel something is stepping on their toes or not, etc. And here's where internal conflict comes in (I bet you thought I'd forgotten!).

Internal conflict is a staple of comics and novels. We get inside the character's head and see what makes him tick. In those media, internal conflict is easy to convey: the writer/author shares it with the audience/reader. 'I'll never be good enough for her, Marius thought.' Simple.

But it gets tricky in a roleplaying game. Our instinct, especially if we've grown up with the immersionist thinking, is not to share the conflict, but simply experience it. But that creates a problem for me, because then only the player of the character gets to appreciate the conflict. It exists only in that player's mind, much as Scott's Outsider-ness existed only in his own mind.

So how do you open it up to allow the other people to appreciate the internal conflict?

The first step is to recognize the lesson of the comics and novels. The writer has to communicate the conflict to the audience. In the case of a gaming group, the writer is the character's player, and the audience is the rest of the group.

Once we recognize that, we have some choices that can turn internal conflict into a real vehicle for serious play in RPGs.

First, we have the soliloquy, a favorite solution in the theater for dealing with this very problem. An excellent example of a soliloquy solution is the Thought Balloon from Michael Miller's phenomenal game, With Great Power (fair disclosure: I edited it). Whenever your character is experiencing an internal conflict, you grab the Thought Balloon, hold it over your head, and express the character's thoughts to the rest of the group. Once that happens, the rest of the group is aware of the conflict and is able to bring their resources to bear in stressing that conflict. It's fantastic.

The other method is to find a way to externalize the conflict. Try to take the conflict that is inside the character, and show it with an NPC relationship. One of the easiest ways is to develop a flag about the conflict. Flags are game elements that communicate a player's desires for his character to the GM and the rest of the group. For instance, let's say you have a character that is all about the following: "I believe life is sacred and no one has the right to kill, but some of these bad people might really have to die ."

In this case, I, as the GM would encourage the player of the character to look for an external factor to represent the obligation toward holding life sacred, whether it's a connection to a family that holds this philosophy, or a temple/church, or what have you. Once the group has that, they can start adding weight to the obligations. They can use their own scenes and characters to push the player's buttons for his character. If the player chooses to have his character kill, it's going to put the obligation in jeopardy. The nature of the relationship will have to change.

The GM, working with the other players, can create scenes that add to the obligation, juxtaposed with scenes that show that allowing these bad guys to live will spread disaster and death all around them. The climax comes at the point of serious choice: kill them and betray yourself, or stay true to yourself and allow them to live.

The group can also play up the human side of the villain. Show their obligations to their own family, the good things they do. And juxtapose it with scenes of the violence and horror they spread. Eliminating these people will stop the devastation, but will also destroy the lives of innocents around them. Now the climactic choice has much more weight.

All this works best when the entire group is on board to make this stuff happen; to bring that character or church or whatever into center stage whenever appropriate.