Sunday, January 25, 2009

I Wanna Story...

This started as a reply to Aaron Nuttall's latest post on his blog “Like Being Read to From a Dictionary”. Like Mr. Nuttall, I'm always sticking in story where it doesn't belong. I'm the guy who loses a game of Settlers of Catan because I start thinking about how the farmboy in my second village, named Chatterins, is pining for a wealthy burgher's daughter in my first village, now a city called Umberlin, while she secretly plots her revenge against the Black Baron who killed her favorite uncle... And suddenly Kimm has the longest road and wins the game.

I love board game night, but I'm not sure why the others let me play with them. Maybe because I don't win?

Anyway, Aaron is running into similar trouble with his Old School Swords & Wizardry game:

The problem with this in old-school play--or any play, I suppose, where the characters haven't got "plot immunity"--is that the characters are going to die. A lot. If they're no longer around to carry your plot threads what happens to your game?

It fizzles, stumbles, stops. Or, that's what happened last night. So what I have to figure out now is how we can think about the PCs and their roles in the game so that their deaths don't hollow out the whole affair--so that there is something left behind when a character's motivation is lost.

I don't think you need to toss story overboard when you're playing an Old School game. What I do as DM is adopt a more reactive role. To do this, you have to let go of the reins, stop trying to craft the story, and instead be the little kid in your footie pajamas saying, “I wanna story with a witch and a troll and a gerbil princess!”

Or you can think of yourself as Drew Carey in the American version of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” You throw a bunch of props and situations on the stage, then sit back and laugh as the players entertain you. ;)

The key is to give up any semblance of “directorial control”. You're not the author, you're the instigator. You set things up, but the players create the story from the bits and pieces you've left laying around for them.

The old adventure B2 – Keep on the Borderlands is a classic example of how to do this. The area described by the module includes the Keep, a mad hermit, some bandits, and the Caves of Chaos. The Caves themselves are a sprawling mish-mash of different humanoid and human threats, most inimical to one another. The entire module describes a terrain rife with conflicting interests and goals, with various groups on the verge of violence against one another. It's like a giant pile of fireworks doused in petrol. And into this volatile environment, you unleash the PCs to wreak havoc and chaos.

Your job as DM in this sort of thing isn't to make sense of the PCs actions, or to plot out arcs of rising and falling action. You instead focus on your characters, the NPCs, and how they react to what the players do to mangle the NPCs' carefully cultivated status quo or clever plans. Some may try to recruit the PCs. Others may try to kill them. Maybe they'll try to send the PCs to savage their foes, either by bribery or trickery. Maybe they'll turtle, hoping the storm raised by the PCs will pass, or maybe they'll try to run away. What the NPCs will do should probably depend rather heavily on what the players do. Usually, a disaster for one faction is a boon for another. Since you don't know what the PCs are going to do yet, you have to pretty flexible, ready to think on your feet and shift direction at a moment's notice.

And yes, the results might be a nasty mish-mash that doesn't look anything like a traditional story. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. The goal, as always, is to have fun. You and the players work together to find out what happens. They are not passive recipients of story and neither, really, are you. Chaos and uncertainty will be rampant, but because the story is greater than any one character, you don't need to worry about granting anyone plot immunity. As in the real world, the cemeteries of your fantasy realms will be full of “indispensable” folks. The loss of one is just another random bit of chaos, certain to change the plans of everyone involved.

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