Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Long Game

Grognardia's recent post about gamer ADD reminded me that my experience is far outside the norm. Since college (1990 for those of you playing along at home) nearly all my games have been multiyear epics. I've played in a handful of short games and one-shots, but pretty much everything I've run has been long-term. The Doom & Tea Parties game has bifurcated into two sorta kinda parallel games running in the same campaign, and they've both been running on a weekly basis for nearly 18 months. (Oddysey reports we’ve had roughly 85 sessions of the older game.) And neither shows any signs of ending anytime soon.

So how does this happen? Part of it, I think, is simply expectations; I assume my games will last for years and therefore they do. Of course no plan survives contact with the enemy, er, I mean players. Luckily, my players seem very amenable to the idea of long-running campaigns. It's likely there’s some self-selection going on there. Still, I think there are some things I do which encourage long-running game.

Verisimilitude: my highest good. Which means I'm probably overstating its importance, but one of the keys to a long-running campaign is predictability. The players need to know that certain things won't change, or at least won't change without a good reason. This allows the players to invest emotionally in the world in their characters. Once they've done that, you've got them!

Flexibility: and now that I've said that, I'm going to contradict myself. The truth is, everything does become boring after a while. Things need to be shaken up every now and kept fresh, and players need surprises. There is a sweet spot between chaos and stagnation. I think the key to hitting that sweet spot is being just consistent enough to preserve the verisimilitude and not too much more than that. And this leads to all sorts of things. Such as...

Rules-lite: yes, I'm fairly certain you can run a long-term campaign with a rules-heavy game. I'm just not sure I can do it. Part of the problem with rules heavy games is that they constrain your flexibility. For instance, one of the things that I have frequently seen in long-term campaigns is that characters change over time. Granted, most advancement mechanics assume that the characters will change, and some even give the players options to define that change. But the more they do this, the more they also constrain how characters change. Games like GURPS can be the worst offenders, as they turn personality into mechanics. Changing the character’s personality over time and in response to events in the characters lives is one of the primary ways players in a long-running campaign keep things fresh for themselves. The na├»ve innocent who grows in sadness and wisdom, the rogue who reforms, the paragon who falls, and the lover (win, lose or draw) all transform slowly over time. The players can enjoy these transformations while leaving themselves open both to changes in the game and alterations to the vectors the PCs’ personalities seem to be moving in.

Rules-lite games also make it easier for more profound transformations that actually do have mechanical effects. Changing your character's race or class in 3E can be a nightmare, especially for a mid- or high-level character. Changing your character's race and class in Labyrinth Lord is a piece of cake; even a high-level character can generally be transformed in half-an-hour or less of fiddling with the character sheet. The less the rules get in your way, the more options you have to keep the game flexible.

Character-driven: I've been talking about characters a lot, and there's a reason for that. At the end of the day, the players are there because of their characters. No matter how amazing or wondrous your campaign setting is, it's the chance to play their characters that brings the players back week after week. It's vital to keep this in mind. Campaigns about your setting or about your wicked plots or masterful villains simply won't last. Players just are not that into it. This means you need to keep things at a very human level. Whether your campaign features the clash of empires, confrontations between gods, or the destruction of entire worlds, you really need to focus on what this means to the players’ characters and their immediate social circle.

Flexible characters in a player-centered campaign creates a feedback loop. The PCs interact with the setting, the setting responds and interacts with the PCs, and both are transformed. These transformations necessitate more interactions, which slowly, over time, keep things constantly moving. It's hard to get bored in this type of game so long as your players are interested in their characters and you are interested in the campaign. So long as the players remain flexible about their character concepts and you're flexible about your campaign concept, this sort of play constantly and consistently creates surprises for everybody.

Follow your bliss: because you need to be having fun to. My original concept for the Doom & Tea Parties game was a Labyrinth Lord version of Birthright. Since I first started playing RPGs, I've always been fascinated with the idea of Arthurian style campaigns. But the truth is, my heart was really more into Swords and Sorcery. Shortly after I posted my gnome class on this blog, I switched gears, embraced my inner Robert Howard, and created the outline for the campaign as it exists now. I'm very happy I did this because I doubt the Birthright version would have lasted. I simply wasn't that interested in it, as much fun as it would've been.

Know yourself, know your interests, and don't shy away.

Be demanding: especially about the schedule. You're going to put a hell of a lot of work into this, and devote a hell of a lot of time to it. There is absolutely no reason why you should not expect the same of your players. If you treat it seriously, and if you demand that it be treated seriously, you will get players who treat it seriously. For instance, the Doom & Tea Parties games run weekly. Yes, both of them. There are weeks when we skip the game, but those are the exception and not the rule.

Keep on top of the paperwork. Expect your players do the same. Some will and some won't, and they’ll be the ones who don't have the 50 feet of rope when they find themselves at the bottom of a 40 foot pit.

And that, I think, is really the bulk of it. Really, when you get down to it, everyone having fun is the most important part. So long as people are having fun they will keep coming back to play. And that is the heart of longevity.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Expectations, Jerks, and Unintended Consequences

I got pointed again to Malcolm Sheppard’s Mob United blog recently, and he’s got another take on his “Fire the Fans” post from a while back. I find this one very interesting because I think it speaks to a disconnect between designers and players.

This is partly also inspired by his comments on friendship and how RPGs seem to be designed under the assumption that we don’t play with our friends. And maybe I’m believing the marketing too much, but I find it interesting how design features in modern games are described differently by the designers and by the players.

The designers speak of guidelines, things like treasure packets and not having rustmonsters, in order to reinforce the focus of the game. These are tools to help the GM hit the statistical sweetspots of the mechanics. Players, on the other hand, frequently speak of limits that keep the GM from being a jerk. One of the common complaints against Old School design and play style is that it puts too much on the GM, and allows the sort of “abuse” that gets bandied about on various forums.

Frankly, I don’t play with folks like that, certainly not more than once. Heck, most players I know won’t play with a GM even after single instances of lesser offenses. But the assumption persists that the game isn’t fun because people are not playing it right, and that you can force them to play it properly through the rules. I do have a hint of sympathy for this view, as I think rules do matter and having rules that reinforce your themes and styles is important. But that sort of reinforcement is a far cry from dictating the actions of others at the table.

This reminds me very much of common advice you’d see in the magazines back in the ‘80s. If the players decided to go off and behave “badly” during the adventure, you were to inflict nasty in-game consequences on their characters. In effect, GMs were advised to engage in passive-aggressive cycles of permissiveness and punishment, and this was supposed to be the key to avoiding railroading. At the time, I thought such advice was brilliant.

Hey, I was 13, what can I say? ;p

The problems with this sort of thing should be obvious. First, if the players are just exercising what they see as the freedom of the sandbox, then punishing them by having the internal world of the game react to them is like spanking a masochist; it’s likely to encourage what you want to discourage. If they don’t enjoy it, then you’re just frustrating and annoying your players, who may or may not (quite likely don’t at all) understand the bizarre map of cause-and-effect in your mind (unless you make it clear through bizarre monologues).

But this is all beside the point. The problem, at its base here, is frustrated expectations. People have conflicting ideas of what they want from the game. The classic example of this is the GM who wants passion and drama and the players who are simply playing the numbers, the classic “roll playing vs. role playing.” In another example, a game I was recently playing in ended because the GM wanted something more episode-focused while the players were all about the “B-plots” of personal struggle and interpersonal conflicts.

It’s easy enough to say, “just talk about these things before the game begins” but that only works if everyone really knows what they want. A lot of people don’t. I thought 3e was going to be the greatest game ever, even after I’d read through the PHB. My Doom & Tea Parties campaign isn’t quite what we expected it to be at first, and if we’d been rigorous about nailing down *exactly* what the campaign was going to be like, we might have locked ourselves too firmly in one style for it to have morphed into what it is now.

Right now, my style is very much based on finding like-minded people to play with, being as clear as possible about my style up front, and being open to pleasant surprises. It works for me (usually, but not always) and it seems to work for my current crop of players. It does require a lot of open communication (made a bit more difficult by all my current games being online and not in person) but that’s just healthy for relationships in general. I need to be better at recognizing issues and addressing them directly from the outset, but my players have been incredibly open to taking our games in strange new directions that would confound a game built upon a rigorous attempt to recreate a certain style of play.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Dawn Treader Trailer

I'm slightly worried about this one, since it's probably the most demanding of all seven of the books, but clearly has the lowest budget of the three released so far. Still, it ought to be a lot of fun.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Sneaking Up On Us...


I almost forgot that tomorrow, Saturday June 19th, is Free RPG Day!

Let the merriment and all that begin! :D

Austinites can join in the festivities at Dragon's Lair, Wonko's Toys (a place I haven't been yet, so it might need a visit tomorrow) and Rogues' Gallery in Round Rock.

Monday, June 07, 2010


The recent passing of Frank Frazetta finally spurred me on to get the book, Icon: A Retrospective by the Grand Master of Fantastic Art. I've had my eye on it for years. But I'm cheap, and I’ve always been able to see his work other places: book covers and comics and on the ‘net. The book arrived the other day and when I opened it up, it knocked my socks off. The ‘net and book covers and comic books are simply too small to convey the power of his work. When you can actually see the weave of the canvas, when you can actually see the lightness of the pigments, it really conveys that misty world of dreams feel that his work frequently captures.

In many ways, Frazetta's work bears a lot of resemblance to the you-are-there school of Elmore and Parkinson. There's the exacting anatomical detail, the wondrous creatures clearly modeled on real biologies, any expert use of light and shadow to add depth and realism. This however some vital differences. The most obvious is the backgrounds. Elmore and Parkinson have richly detailed, almost photographic landscapes. Frazetta's backgrounds are muddy, swirling colors with only hints of definition and form. Where Elmore crafted windows to other worlds, Frazetta evokes fever dreams. You could almost say that Elmore's you-are-there style and Erol Otis' fever dream-style are each facets of Frazetta's work. On his canvases the two meld seamlessly. The landscapes loom in the distance; the characters emerge from the backgrounds; the monsters rise from the terrain.

And yet, even in his most languid pieces, there is a sense of power. Often, it's physical: the swing of an ax, the charge of a horse, the fall of a body. Almost as frequently, it's sexual: the voluptuous siren, the broad shouldered barbarian, the slavering monster. His work isn’t calm and comforting, but pricks at the deepest strings of our hearts. Often, there's that same bizarre marriage of horror and nostalgia that Robert Howard can evoke.

I’ll be very curious to see what Robert Rodriguez does with a remake of Fire & Ice. I assume it’s going to be live-action, which will take us a further step away from Frazetta’s work. Still, he did such an amazing job with Sin City, I can’t help but be optimistic.