vrijdag 11 mei 2012

Playing Cards at the Gaming Table

I like to play Role Playing Games. Pen and paper Role Playing Games, in fact, are amongst the most fun to play, because of their unpredictable nature. Good Game Masters are able to run a basic story three times, in which there are three different routes through the story and about eleventy-billion possible endings.
The charm of the pen and paper RPG is the fact that you’re not bound to what the producers have coded on those little discs, and aren’t forced to buy certain hardware (I, for example, would love to play Killzone some day, if it wasn’t for the fact that I don’t own a Playstation). Everything is in the Game Master’s mind and the only limitation to what the players are able to do is what he or she has prepared and how well he or she is able to improvise his way around players going there where nothing was prepared.
Seeing how I moonlight as a writer, despite a terrible case of writer’s block that’s lasted since frickin’ February, I took it upon myself to see how well I could Game Master (or GM, for those willing to learn a bit of jargon) a short campaign in Dungeons and Dragons (or D&D. See? I’m preparing to use big words often, so I’m not going to use them anymore now). When I started writing, though, I realized that my friends are unpredictable little jerks at times and would surely fail to follow the plot threads I wanted to lay out so carefully. Not because they did it to spite me, but because they’d find numerous things that are more shiny than what I wanted them to find. Things that I did my best to make as dull as possible, to railroad them a little bit. Practiced GM’s will probably roar in rage at this, but hey, I’m not a practiced GM.
So what was my solution? My plan was threefold, namely:

1: I limited their movement space. Not by saying ‘these are the boundaries, don’t leave them!’, or as Yahtzee said so much better in his Wolfenstein review:

“It transpires that the in-game reality,
Has potentials to non-linearity,
The game says: 'on your bike!
Go wherever you like!
As long as it’s in this principality!'”

But by actually limiting the area of where things were happening. It was really quite easy, a big city usually helps and contains more than enough people and events to keep any story interesting. My players might want to get out, and I’ll be able to work with it, but aside from a couple minor hints, they won’t find much.

2: I didn’t lay out a path. During the first session, which was quite recent, I was able to predict quite accurately where they would be going and prepare a couple of locations. That’s because that session covered the road to said city and the introduction of it. I prepared three encounters and then said ‘okay, go!’ to them to go explore and meet people. Instead of making them go from one encounter to the next, I simply filled up the city with interesting people who know things and who are able to provide plot hooks and information. They actually met quite a few of those people.
This does put me in a bit of a bind considering the preparations, though. I’ve already worked out a couple of encounters and, if I continue the role playing over the e-mail a bit, I’ll be able to lead them to a position where I can beautifully prepare a first encounter, but it’ll require a bit of cooperation from my players. That’ll be tricky, at best.

3: I provided quite a lot of hints in the plot hooks. Clear hints. Hints of which I said ‘you’d have to be stupid to miss those’, and I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer. During this first session, they received enough information to get a clear view of a couple of the major players in the overarching storyline, but somehow, I got the feeling they didn’t really buy that. I blame the overly political and shades-of-grey game we’re also playing, because it made us all distrustful and got us second-guessing just about everyone we meet, but apparently they don’t buy it that I opted to make things a little more black and white.
Granted, one of my players DID catch the hint I threw at them the very moment it went across the table, but he was quickly shushed by one of the others. That was fun to watch.

What I wanted to focus on with this little story are the first and second points. Because I gave them free roaming ability in a limited space, very Assassin’s Creed-esque, they could interact with anyone at any point in time. In other words, mapping out the way conversations would go through limited predictions would be next to impossible. In my notes I’ve got a list of names, followed by short descriptions of who the people are, what they know exactly and what they want. Armed with just that, I said ‘and from there, I’m going to wing it’.

People who know me also know that I’m not that great of an improviser, especially when pitted against some of my friends who are (they know who they are), and when I’m talking, I’m usually not sure what to do with my hands. Well, I know a couple of things, but that would be distracting and awkward.
I knew that was going to be a problem, so I opted to bring a little distraction for myself. I packed a deck of cards with me, which I would just use to shuffle during the improvisation scenes. It’s a sufficiently mindless task that I would be able to focus on the game itself and, if I didn’t make it anything fancy, wouldn’t distract my players from the game, either.
I was wrong.
The moment I got the deck out and started shuffling, I noticed awkward and panicked looks flying around the table. My players are well trained to watch the GM’s hands, in case he starts rolling for something we’re not aware of, and that’s exactly what they asked.

“Rik, why do you have a pack of cards? What are you going to do with those?” they asked.
“Oh, nothing,” I tried to reassure them, “it’s just to keep myself busy, nothing more.”
They didn’t buy it. A couple of them visibly tensed up whenever I grabbed the cards and started shuffling, as if I could whip a card out at any moment, look at it, and say ‘yep, you’re fucked’. They actually declared their fear of that happening.

Now, kids, let me tell you about a little rule that’s well known amongst pen and paper gamers. It’s called Rule Zero and is very basic and simple: Don’t give the GM idea’s. A GM has enough ideas to kill his or her players ten times over already, so anything you add to that can only work to your disadvantage.
With that knowledge, you can safely say that my players broke said rule and, I think we can all agree, that I’d be a bad GM if I don’t come up with some way to incorporate my habit in some way into the game now. In fact, just thinking about this made me get a couple of ideas and rules for said ideas that’ll be just Awesome to work with…
I’m going to love this.
My players are going to hate this.

Now, I’m enjoying the improvising immensely, but there’s just one minor problem with the way I structured my campaign: it’s driving my group apart. Not the players, oh no, they’re great, but their characters are struggling to stay together. One of them has actually already declared the intention that his character has absolutely no reason to stay with the storyline and figure it out, while another of them is actually going in a direction that’s not going to help the party at all. Any good GM would be able to figure it out in such a way that this would be turned around in a way that would benefit both the story and the party. I just make no claims of being a good GM and, quite frankly, my players’ unpredictable nature makes it very hard to build up ideas. For the second case, I think I got something nailed down quite well, but it depends on him for my plan to make the first case work. I just hope I can buy enough time…

2 opmerkingen:

  1. I think you're being harsh on yourself for the failure of your players to conform to the responsibility to reason themselves into being with the group.

    Characters falling apart is by far one of the worst things in game, and the underlying reason this keeps happening is that the group is not assembled with the intention of sticking together.

    When you start a campaign, you need to sit down with all the players and talk about making your characters together. Aside from party balance mechanically, integral to the design of a party is their reason to stick together.

    1. (ooh, late reply XD)
      I actually opted to use the 'Birth of a Hero' module, which allowed for my group to build level 0 characters which were good for one session in which they would decide their main role and get used to their character. It really works like this:
      They choose a race, a power base (arcane, martial, etcetera) and get assigned a certain power according to that. This power has four different options, which you can freely choose between every time you use it and which are linked to an overarching role (leader, defender, striker or controller). At the end of the first session, counting out how often you used certain parts of the one power you were given, you'd be given a combination of power and role that would decide your class (arcane and controller would make a wizard, for example, arcane and leader a bard).
      The problem with this was that I decided to use the 'Temple of the Weeping Goddess' lvl0 module, which made my characters start out as orphans in an orphanage. They didn't really have a binding point, except for the fact that they were all stranded in the same orphanage, and I allowed characters that were built to be playground bullies and the like...

      All said and done, though, I think I can fix this. It'll require a little cooperation, but I'm gonna do this. It'll be fine ^^