Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Encounter Tables

There are times when I don't prepare for games but I let the players drive everything about their characters. You know this kind of game. The GM just starts the session with, "So, what's your character up to? The last time we saw them they were..."

This is great in a group of improvisers. Everyone just responds to what the others are doing in that moment. I play in a game of PTA that does this every single time and we all have fun with it.

On the flipside, there are games in which I plan much more. I start the session with a recap of the previous events and often set the first scene. To raise the bar more, I might have several scenes prepared to open throughout the game. This works well when I'm playing with my kids. They're quite young and they like a linear story so that's what I usually give them.

Another way to think about that kind of preparation is what I gleaned from Spirit of the Century a few years ago. It's not about scene preparation. It's about antagonist preparation. Their example revolved around the question of what the antagonist would do in the circumstances of the game. That is, they wanted to steal the sacred jade egg from the museum. If they were foiled by the player characters, what do they do now? Do they try and steal it from the player characters? Perhaps they weren't foiled by the player characters. Now we need to know what they wanted to jade egg for (some ritual?) and then add that.

I think of this as a kind of intervention encounter. GM characters need to have their own motivations and plans, with contingencies, or with new plans that they formulate only because the player characters meddled in Plan A. These kinds of interactions, when committed by a meaningful GM character, connect the character to the larger story. All the other encounters run the risk of having no connection to the details on the character sheet. A character might be described as the second son of the village chief, but the encounters might always be about defending against coastal raiders. The disconnection is a wasted opportunity.

And round out this post, I also use a fourth kind of encounter, the random encounter. We know they add a little spice to a story, often by giving a chance for players to show off their character in some way. It's a good pipe beat that can return later in the story climax. The other thing I like about random encounters is that the universe is random, and sometimes it makes sense that life is also random. No one expected that storm, that car accident, that economic downturn, or whatever.

And yes, I have a game to prepare for tonight. Better get on with it.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

What You Want From A Gaming Convention

Go Play Brisbane has been my baby for a long time, even when I left it in the (let me stress very) capable hands of John Reid for few years. It's always been about the play, about the fun. We've dabbled with workshops here and there, but we always return to that thing that's at the heart of a local gaming convention: playing tabletop games (new or old) with people (old friends or never met before). Special guests, seminars, workshops and the like have rarely been as popular as being able to just sit down and play.

It makes me think that what people want from these events is just play and community.

You can see this in the range of games. People want to play the new hotness. I remember Apocalypse World games taking the event one year. Last year was the GUMSHOE year, with Blades in the Dark attracting a crowd as well. But then people also want to play some old favourites too, in smaller amounts.

And people want their community. Between games, small groups huddle together and re-tell their adventures. People come and tell their stories to the registration people. Over meals and drinks, people tell their stories.

And that's what we'll keep doing because we love all that too.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Narrative for non-wounding hits

In the last couple of months I've listened to a number of D&D 5e actual play podcasts courtesy of the Podcast of Foes series. Of the many things I've noticed is the way in which combat hits are narrated. Most GMs and players describe hits in the same way.

The weapon creates a wound.

I mean that even if it's a dagger used against a paladin in plate, the narrative is still about the dagger drawing blood or sinking into flesh. Hit points seem to be a bit more nebulous than that. They're a pool of points used to describe fatigue, bruising, cuts, poisoning, burns, infection, psychic pain, and so on. As such, we need to tailor our narrative to each strike. Let's consider a paladin with full hit points taking a few different hits.

From a lizardman's spiked shield: "The shield crashes into you, each spike delivering a painful bruise."

From a rogue's poisoned dagger: "The dagger thuds against your armour, and slides across to find the space between the plates, nicking your skin."

From an orc's sword: "The orc's sword comes down in an overhead arc. You lift your heavy shield high to block it and stagger back from the effort required to hold back the brute."

From a monk's flurry of blows: "The monk moves faster than your armour allows. Strikes land and miss, but all of them force you back and forth under the weight of your armour. It's exhausting."


The challenge is to find a fit between all the aspects that hit points represent and the details of the attack. The other challenge is to break the mental model that all attacks create wounds. As players we need to change the way we think about hit points.

I'll take a leaf from Vincent Baker's theorising about games. He described it as an interaction between Dice and Clouds. It's probably more accessible than using semiotics theory to describe it, so let's go with it.

The dice (the physical game component) have produced a number. The number is interpreted by the rules as a hit. The hit needs to be translated by the players into the cloud of the narrative. We know the first two parts of this chain quite well and have the opportunity to do better with the third part. Broadening our understanding of what hit points represents opens the possibilities for how to convert the interpreted die result into fiction.

So think broadly! What else does a successful hit look like in your game?