Monday, 14 May 2012

Why They Avenged

I watched The Avengers last night. Let's put to side all the rambling, incoherent phrases of joy about how happy it made me feel. Instead, let's just point out something I'll polish in my GM kit: why they avenged in the first place.

It's a group of adventurers and do-gooders, after all. They're not all on the screen at the same time and they aren't all friends, so why work together? It's more than just the motivation for glory, it's a concrete thing. Without giving away spoilers, if CENSORED hadn't died, none of them would have come back from their in-fighting in order to take on Loki and the invading horde. It was enough to make them see beyond themselves in order to work as a team.

For my games, this is an important technique for group cohesion - assuming that it's the kind of story that needs it. The Big Threat (tm) sometimes isn't enough by itself and needs to be made personal to each of the characters so that they take action. Characters need to be personally motivated, not generally motivated. "Fame and fortune" are bad motivations. "Imprisoning the black knight for his crimes against my beloved people" is better, especially if the black knight has done horrible things which have personal significance to the player characters.

The motivation for the Avengers to work together is personal, not general, with the possible exception of Captain America, but even he was prone to in-fighting before CENSORED died. Make it personal and you'll get better response from the characters, creating better story.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Roleplaying is a Skill

There was a fashionable topic in gaming about four years ago concerning the quality of gaming at the table. Some of the discussion was around the idea that there are some gamers who are better at gaming than others. It's a topic of perspective and expectation, of course, but I think it comes down to this: roleplaying is a skill.

Roleplaying games are a mixture of story making, improvisational acting and rules optimisation. As players (and by this I think I'll include GMs in that group) we're all involved in those three. Understanding the rules is important to playing the game the way the designer intended*. Those rules are set up with a reward system so that the player is encouraged to behave in particular ways. In order to get the most out of the game, therefore, the player needs to know the rules and get the most out of them. It's the law of self-interest in gaming. Most games facilitate that self-interest and as players we exploit those rules. That's a skill just like tax accountancy. Know the rules and get the best out of them.

Improvisational acting is a skill too. Many of us know how to make things up, but can we do it on the fly as a performance? That takes practice, ergo it's a skill. There are plenty of techniques we can employ to do it, and volumes written about it as well. We can learn it, and we should learn it.

Improv also has an element of story making in it, but it's not the only story making that goes on during a game. Sometimes we pause and talk at the table about the best choice for the next part of the story. Different players make suggestions about the next thing that would make the story enjoyable and it happens separate to acting. There are techniques in that and we gamers like to give them names. "Make failure interesting" or "fail forward" or whatever you like.

At the end of it I come back to my original thought that roleplaying is a skill. Each of us will learn it up to the point that makes it enjoyable for ourselves; self-interest again. I wonder, though, how many of us will learn it up to the point that makes it enjoyable for the others at the table. Musicians can either play guitar in their bedrooms and fantasise about performing in front of the crowds, or they can practise until their performance becomes enjoyable to an audience.

What will you do with your gaming skills? Will you keep them for your own enjoyment, or will you level up to bring enjoyment for others too?

* OK, so their intent is sometimes lost in the actual words of the text, but I hope you can run with me on this.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Taking the Fight out of Fighting Fantasy

My gaming group has been playing Advanced Fighting Fantasy for four sessions now and due to some scheduling problems, I found myself as the GM on short notice. It's like a convention, but with 24 hours prep time instead of 24 minutes.

I thought about the characters and the players in the group to figure out what kind of game they wanted and what kind of story to tell. Up to this point we had a group of mercenaries, playing out a tabletop version of WOW. Since a couple of players were new to tabletop gaming I took the opportunity to show them yet another style of gaming, but still within the boundaries of a familiar gaming system.

In the party that night was a war mage who was a loyal agent of the king, a mercenary elf archer, a dwarf mercenary and a paladin of the state religion. Nearly all the skills in the group were fighting skills, with a couple of sneaking or conning skills. The game is Advanced Fighting Fantasy after all. I decided to push a few character buttons in the form of questions.
  • Where is the war mage's real loyalty; to his comrades or to the king or...?
  • What will the paladin do if he was faced with a hard moral choice between conscience and duty?
  • How will the elf react when the relationship between elves and humans is strained?
In the game these manifested around the idea that the city-state was more than a little human-supremacist. Non-humans are tolerated because they do the degrading jobs and can be skilled cannon-fodder in a fight. The short versions of the plot elements to match the questions I posed were these:
  • Another paladin asked the war mage (king's agent) to spy on the PC paladin for being overly familiar with non-humans.
  • The PC paladin heard about a race hate crime that left three elves dead in the street. No one was sent to investigate and the city guard dumped the bodies in the garbage outside the city.
  • The elf was charged with a sacred oath to take vengeance on the killers, or on the city guard who allowed it to happen.
As you can imagine, this created loads of fantastic plot tension in the group. Our game became an investigation game, with plenty of opportunities to face down hostile elves without actually fighting. Only when some hired goons were sent to scare off the human sympathisers were swords drawn.

Now, none of this is to boast that I'm a real roleplayer or that AFF is TEH SUX0R!!!!!1! I used the system to support our game, and our game was about making stories that were relevant to the player characters and which were enjoyable to the players. In fact, I found that the system was flexible enough to let that happen in a meaningful way. It didn't get in the way and didn't feel like I'd shoehorned it into something strange. All we did was turn the fighting down from ten to three and fill the other space with character story. And this is what we found out about the characters.
  • The war mage is loyal to the kingdom, or possibly his own career advancement. He's definitely not loyal to the paladin.
  • The paladin has some significant moral disagreement with others in the order and in the city about how to treat non-humans, and is willing to kill for that cause. He's chosen conscience over duty.
  • The elf will side with other elves and is willing to kill for them, although he's also willing to deceive them to solve a problem.
I enjoyed running this game, no question. We gave the characters some context and we created plot opportunities for later episodes. All in all, we put some story in our game. Win. Win. Win.