Friday, July 27, 2012


I wanted to expand a little on the previous discussion of campaign preparation. I do not believe a referee's preparation should look anything like a published adventure module, which were fixed and scripted scenarios developed specifically for the tournament milieu. These are, of course, fun to read for inspiration or to run the players through a "gauntlet" typical of gaming conventions. However, for home games, these adventures are far too scripted, and go against the basic principle that narration is neither controlled by referee nor by player (as discussed in the previous article).

Yet, it is imperative that the game world seems real and adventureful at every moment and in every scene. Some work must go into world creation, but this fashioning and shaping cannot have a stymying effect. The generative process must be continuous through the process of playing, so that the world comes alive and retains full fluidity. Player decisions, ever capricious, must remain meaningful.

Marshall Miller has given a good example of what this might look like for Dungeon World, a fan variant of Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World. That game already divides the environs of a game world into Fronts, which are living, breathing local situations that the players can get themselves mired in. Not only is a Front (e.g. the Caves of Chaos) a vivid and lush location to explore, but it is also an ambiguous, evil force to oppose the heroes, a ticking time bomb (with signs of the looming disaster), and a creature in and of itself (capable of executing its own moves and maneuvers against the players). A Front is a setting that truly comes to life, like the Mines of Moria, and opposes the heroes by its very nature. It must be carefully explored, discussed and negotiated by both the players and the referee alike, with the primary vehicle for this being dice rolls and decisions.

What Miller has added to this is the notion of the "Adventure Starter." This is another sort of environ in the game world, contained within a quick, flexible toolkit designed to spark the initial interest and action. An entire "Adventure Starter" environ consists in a reminder of the referee's guiding principles (make the world real, make it full of adventure etc), a list of scenic impressions to colour your descriptions and make the world real, some open-ended questions meant to both inspire sub-plots and to hook your players, a list of artifacts and creatures that might be of utility for the referee and finally a list of new moves open to the players while they explore the setting. Importantly, there are no maps, no pre-scripted story and no hard timelines. The referee could glance at the two-page setting and read as much or as little as he likes without missing anything important.

Both Fronts and Adventure Starters are an excellent way for a referee to prepare the environs and locales of the game world. They are inspirational and fluid, and may be used before and during the game to drive interesting scenes. At the same time, preparing this kind of gaming world is not about pre-establishing events, plots or geography. Those are answers, and the answers that the actual playing experience will give you are always better. Rather, the referee should start to think about preparing problems which do not necessarily have an answer… yet. Confronted with a living, dynamic and danger-filled world, the players' actions and words fill the adventure-engine that the referee has prepared, fueling gameplay that players can actually care about and feel.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Say No or Force Them to Make a Saving Throw Versus Death

Flipping through Diaspora yesterday, I came across a sentiment increasingly common to modern roleplaying games. At the core of Diaspora (and many such newer games) is the phrase "Say Yes, or Roll the Dice." Essentially, this axiom requires the referee to always endorse the players' proposed strategy, or at least give them a shot with a die roll.

For Fate fans (which includes Diaspora, Spirit of the Century, Legends of Anglerre and many other related games), this has been heralded as a very "tactical" system. Players are constantly coming up with spur of the moment plans (actually, justifications for why they should win), which the referee must then accept, or let the dice decide. It is reminiscent of old school procedure, where the referee listens to the plan carefully and then comes up with a target number and rolls the die to determine success. The only difference is that "Say Yes…" precludes the referee's veto. The referee is instead slavishly committed to accepting every player strategy, regardless of how believable it is, or how it circumvents the referee's own schemes. Rather than staging a tactical opposition, the referee is subject to player whim.

This is, perhaps, seen as contrasting adversarial-style refereeing. It also developed, however, in response to a style of Dungeons & Dragons that increasingly defined characters by "Player Options," "Powers" and other mechanical advantages. Instead of thinking through a problem, players would simply look down at their character sheet for all the answers. Written in 2002 at the height of the third edition, The Burning Wheel fantasy roleplaying game was, in many ways, a response to what Dungeons & Dragons had become. In contrast with a referee-dominated narrative and players with mechanically enabling character powers, The Burning Wheel introduced the "Say Yes…" paradigm for the first time, and thus framed the referee as an enabler and the players as holding narrative control.

Of course, buying into this premise of "player control versus referee control" has obscured the original simple and elegant functionality of Dungeons & Dragons. Recently, I asked Mike Monard (veteran of the original Lake Geneva campaign) whether referees back in the day would punish Magic-Users who neglected utility spells and front-loaded combat spells by throwing in obstacles that would require the former. His response was illuminating, and is worth quoting here in full:

"Remember… the world was created first, THEN the characters were created to explore it. The way Gary, Dave, and the rest of us did it, we would set up our dungeons such that you would need a selection of both combat and utility spells. Choosing how to allocate your limited spell slots was part of the fun, as was dealing with not having a certain spell where it would be useful.

The world came first, so changing the world based on player spell selection would have been cheating. It's about the only way for the referee to cheat, in fact. Any ref who changed things on the fly to punish players based on that day's spell selection would have found themselves without any players.

What was there, was there. There was a nest of six trolls on Level 1 of Greyhawk. If you went there with three first level characters, you found six trolls. If you went there with nine 11th level characters, you found six trolls. Changing the world as you seem to be describing above would have been anathema. It is really the only way to cheat as the referee.

The referee developed a world, the players investigated it, and changing things after the fact was cheating. It was part and parcel of suspension of disbelief that the world followed its own laws and trajectory. How player decisions might intersect with that trajectory was largely unpredictable, and there was a level of excitement and discovery for both players and referee. There is a classic movement here which is common to Shakespeare plays, whereby one person would pass partial information along to another individual, who would then filter it further to a third. Consider the Doctor who agrees to provide the Queen with a vial of poison but, fearing her evil designs, actually gives her a sleeping draught. The Queen, thinking the elixir to be a poison, hands it further to the naive rival princess, promising that it is a healing balm to be taken when she is feeling ill. The King falls ill and the princess administers the sleeping draught. Chaos ensues.

Likewise, the referee may know what is really going on, but this is filtered through interrogated non-player characters or partial clues that the players may find. Only half of the truth reaches the players, who then introduce a further (and unpredictable) abstraction through their misinterpretation of the situation. This beautiful friction makes for the stuff of true legends. Here, the referee is neither adversarial nor enabling, but rather purely neutral (which reminds me of an excellent and illustrative Knights of the Dinner Table comic, where the Knights are able to "outsmart" B.A.'s flagship dungeon).

The take away from all of this is that we as referees must again become world-smiths. It is hard work, and tremendous preparation must go into the campaign as well as each individual session. Different webs of non-player characters must be charted, including individual motives and knowledge. Interesting eventualities must be at least initially considered, while some obstacles with no apparent solution should be cataloged (perhaps a dungeon at the top of a perfectly sheer cliff, encouraging the players to be creative). The story will take unexpected turns, and the referee's encyclopedic register of history and dramatis personae will breath enough life into the world that it will take on its own momentum. In all of this, narrative control belongs to the friction between player knowledge and referee impartiality. As the authors of Adventurer Conqueror King put it, "every campaign is a law unto itself" and the excitement comes from these worlds taking on a life of their own.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Every Fighting-Man is Unique

I am not aware when it came about, but at some point a vicious rumour crept into our collective understanding of Dungeons & Dragons. This rumour subtly, surreptitiously put forth the notion that the original game, in its basic, open-ended template form, was somehow too limited. There weren't enough monsters, there weren't enough classes, there weren't enough powers or abilities. The original game, so this shadowy speculation would have you believe, just didn't have enough stuff.

So the next generation of more "advanced" games came out, promising more things for the throngs of adventure-hungry players to do by promising game rules that were packed with more stuff. Ironically, on the other end of this history (some thirty years later), we are now flooded with such games—enough to stack from floor to ceiling in a dusty, unvisited brick-and-mortar gaming store. We certainly have enough adventure, yet, we have very few players hungry for adventure. What went wrong? What was it that originally enchanted those players, who came from every walk of life, and made them so esurient?

Today's games have naturally attracted a very different, and far less diverse crowd (which is unfortunate, not only because we lose perspective and creativity, but because many of the so-called "gamers" are individuals that no one in their right mind would like to spend an afternoon with). The excessive influx of systems, mechanics and rules to our Saturday afternoon scenarios naturally caters to rules-obsessed types, and the move away from free-form, communal decision-making and storytelling alienates people who didn't sign up for this level of commitment. But there is also a delightful agility that was somehow lost in this sad transmutation.

I believe that earlier adventuring aficionados truly understood that the original game was merely a template. The apparent limitation, for example, to choose one of three iconic character options (Fighting-Man, Magic-User or Cleric) belies the fact that these choices were never meant as more than basic blueprints from which characters were built. Looking in the three little books, for instance, one finds extremely few limitations: ability scores have next to no impact on the game, the rules allow dual and multi-classing, and any character can attempt any action. There was essentially an adventurer, and different options determined what access he or she had to different equipment and spellcraft.

One of the rarely highlighted aspects of the original game in particular is the concept of level titles. This dizzying array of honorifics is typically understood as a strict progression, one to the next, so that a Hero becomes a Swashbuckler or a Sorcerer becomes a Necromancer or a Bishop becomes a Lama. Yet, as we can see, this progression is not altogether coherent (why should a Catholic Bishop become a Tibetan Lama, exactly?), which may have led many to simply discard level titles entirely. At my table, I encourage my players to really make level titles their own, however, and use them to define their characters.

Maybe Toki, a Japanese Fighting-Man character, starts off as a Veteran. By level two, I encourage him to describe how his Fighting-Man is different, and soon he takes the level two title "Sohei" (or warrior monk, becoming an ascetic mountain warrior). During level two, I allow him to track monsters through the woods or navigate untamed mountains. By level three, the campaign has taken another turn: Toki takes on the role of a pirate and starts swinging from ropes and intimidating his opponents.

Customizing level titles is an excellent way to show your players that the archetypal classes are merely base templates from which characters are developed. I do not believe a party with 14 Fighting-Men should feel like a party with 14 Fighting-Men. The fact is that the Fighting-Man class, like the other classes, is broad enough to contain every sword-swinging hero one could dream up. Each character should be different and unique, and the rules of the original game are just open-ended enough to allow that. In reality, there is nothing more alienating than bringing a new player to your table and telling him that his character concept has to fit within your game's hard boundaries and strict definitions, and this is one of the main reasons that this hobby lost its diverse player community: we stopped asking people to bring their own creativity and ideas to the table.


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