Winning at RPG’s

RPG’s are a game. As a designer and gamemaster you want people to love the experience of play so much, they come back and back and back. As a designer or GM, you win when the players have fun.

How to do that?

RPG’s are most compelling when you have (a) characters who (b) have goals, who (c) face obstacles to achieving those goals and (d) eventually overcome them and succeed.

Buy-in to the character. Buy-in to the goal. Buy-in to being determined in the face of setbacks. Vividly experiencing the world (at times). Immersion in the character (at times).

But the most important part is buy-in to the goal and overcoming challenges. The first makes the game compelling, the second makes it memorable.

Compelling play. Memorable victories. That’s how you “win” RPG’s.

And compelling play comes from many different things. Vivd depictions of the world. Mechanics that are fun to play with. Challenges that are novel, not “another damn orc.” Worlds that are intriguing and which offer mysteries.

Make the in-game play exciting, so they are motivated to participate. Make the victory sweet, so they will remember how much fun they had and want to do it again.

That’s an awesome RPG.

Infinity aspires to aid GM’s in doing that.

Postscript: What Can We Do?

[pt. 21]

Roleplaying doesn’t need a revolution.

This hobby is 40 years old. That’s plenty of time for hundreds of thousands of fans to come and go, fans which include players, GM’s, and designers.

They’ve designed games, built and run campaigns, rolled dice and snarfed snacks, and had a wonderful time. That’s what this hobby is about.

Just fun.

This hobby doesn’t need self-important pretentious assholes telling everyone else how to Do Things Right. It doesn’t need auteurs. It just needs you.

You run games. Play games. Design games.

And in those 40 years, for whatever part of that time you’ve been involved, you’ve learned some things. Learned how to play, how to GM, or how to design a game.

You’ve learned some techniques that work very well.

“Understanding RPG’s” should be, at its heart, an archive of the collective wisdom of the fans of this funky, fractious, geeky medium.

Other things can certainly aid. A history of the medium. Practical analysis and description of how RPG’s function. Techniques used in other mediums, that we can borrow.

Gather them. Organize them. Publicize them.

If not in one central, definitive book, then on your blogs, in forum posts, on Facebook and Google+.

The main resource is you.

“Understanding RPG’s.” By gamers. For gamers.

Who else really understands RPG’s?

What Was The Point?

[pt. 20]

Nearly the end of a very long series of posts, and I should answer one simple question:

What was the point of it all?

It’s simple: people don’t understand RPG’s. This is demonstrated by the very existence of the GNS, but that could be written off as the work of a single, bizarre individual (and those drawn to his ideas) were it not for the simple damning fact that GNS came to dominate RPG design this last decade.

More, it continues to influence how people design games. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, Third Edition uses a lot of GNS concepts, as does the close-to-release Star Wars game. The 7th Edition of Call of Cthulhu (still in production) bids fair to do the same (at least it seems so, according to statements made by the designers).

The fact that so many fell for the GNS, and continue to do so, astounds me, and convinces me that we simply do not understand this thing called roleplaying. Not in a precise, technical manner.

We’re operating off a stew of unexamined assumptions, accreted over the years. This works fine, for gamemastering and playing. But game design, it seems, needs more.

We’re geeks. We hunger for novelty. It’s our defining feature. The real world isn’t enough for us, we demand worlds from imagination. And when they grow stale, we remix them, add to or subtract from them, stir them up.

We go from Lord of the Rings to Dungeons & Dragons to Shadowrun to… on and on, so long as we can. The new delights us.

But the new is often foolish and faddish. And Narrativist mechanics in RPG’s are foolish and faddish.

GNS has failed in the court of public opinion. But designers are still in thrall to the lure of the new.

Am I saying that all game designers are bad? Of course not. But too many pursue the simming fad, even otherwise decent designers.

We don’t need a revolution.

We need designers who want to make RPG’s and not simgames. Simming and roleplaying are not the same, and the better designers understand RPG’s, the clearer that will become.

We need game designers with a grounded education in the fundamentals of RPG design. We need designers who actually understand RPG’s.

Hence the question: Where is “Understanding RPG’s”?

The Virtues of Incident-Based Adventures

[pt. 19]

What are the virtues of this approach? Besides a practical basis to structure free-form adventures, it also inculcates GM’s and players with specific attitudes. The GM learns to approach every situation assuming the players can do anything, and that letting them do so is right.

The players learn they can try anything (within the limits of the game’s mechanics and the setting itself). They have a tremendous sense of freedom. The consequences of missing a clue, or allowing an event to happen, make the game world seem more real, more like a place where cause-and-effect take place. Their choices have real consequences.

Writers and module designers are encouraged to think in terms of specific, evocative details. The clothes a band of thugs are wearing, the weapons they use, the language they speak: all of these are potential clues, and knowing an incident needs clues leads the writer towards putting specific and meaningful details in the description of the incident.

The real world has layers upon layers of meaning. My personal writing style tends towards short paragraphs. That tells experienced editors that I developed my writing skills while writing for newspapers. My writing style is evidence of my past.

Similarly, the clues a writer embeds in an incident arise from the nature of that incident, the participants, and the world itself. Because they reflect the facts of the world and the scenario, they are reliable leads to follow to discover the truth. They make the game world come alive and make it seem real.

Incident Adventures In Play

[pt. 18]

Here’s how this method works in play:

The adventure begins in Incident A, a house where a friend (a professor) has been murdered. The primary challenge is searching the house for clues. The house is one incident, and is connected with the following:

  1. If they choose not to go in, or can’t find clues, they can visit the police to find out what happened. (The police station is another incident, Incident B.)
  2. The clues suggest another faculty member has been angry with their friend. They can decide to go to his house (Incident C).
  3. In a journal, the professor mentions some important papers that are in a safe in his office on campus. (Incident D.)

There are likely several more potential incidents than these, but the GM shouldn’t prep too many. (Too many choices paralyzes, rather than empowers. Another empirically-established guideline.) In that same vein, no individual incident should have too many (or too few) potential clues. The players will gladly follow red herrings or their own misconceptions, there’s no need to overburden them with dozens of the GM’s choices.

Eventually, as they explore the scenario, the players can discover enough information to identify the murderer or the murderer could get suspicious enough to try and take them out. Catching him, killing him, or turning the evidence over to the cops ends the adventure.

What then? Assuming the game was enjoyable and memorable, the players can think over what happened, constructing stories from the gameplay. Stories about player conflict or cooperation, stories about characters working together or betraying each other, stories about the mystery they just solved.

It doesn’t matter what the stories are about. It matters that they enjoyed the session, and will remember it fondly.

Some troubleshooting:

What if the players miss all 3 clues at an incident? Players are wily and creative. Likely, they will think of additional places to go. Be ready to improvise new incidents you may not have thought of and be ready to describe clues that could be found there.

What if they miss all the clues? This would otherwise be a roadblock. Fortunately, events backstop the adventure. An event is something that will happen at a particular point in time, unless the party intervenes. Someone shoots at the mayer during his noon speech, for example.

Right away, these events give players a new incident to engage with: the aftermath of the event. And while engaging that incident, they can discover clues to other incidents. You should include a few event incidents in every adventure. They’re an easy way to get lost players re-involved.

Of course, the players can wander off by accident or design. If they choose to do so, that’s what occurs. There’s no need to coerce them back into the adventure.

Last of all, if the players totally fail, they fail. It may not be as fun as a hard-won battle, but success isn’t guaranteed.

Their failure has consequences, and those consequences are fodder for future adventures. That’s how RPG’s work.

∞ Infinity: Action Movie Worlds for an Action Movie RPG

∞ Infinity isn’t an end in and of itself. It is, and always has been, a venue for game settings I’m interested in creating and running. These include:

  • Guns in The Outlaw: Mad Max meets The Lord of the Rings. It’s 2039, and the world has been remade by three apocalypses: The Plague, The Collapse, and The Emergence of Magic (monsters, spells, and non-human races). There are but a few islands of order, everywhere else is The Outlaw, the lawless expanse. “Guns” are Outlaw freelancers: mercenaries, bounty hunters, and, yes, even criminals. When people need protection, when they need revenge, when they need a monster hunted and killed, they hire Guns. In post-Emergence America, where dragons fly and spells actually work, Guns are the heroes and villains of The Outlaw.
  • Infinity ∞ Files: The walls between our world and an infinite universe of alternate Realities are breaking down. Portals to other worlds are opening up, flooding our Reality with things that cannot exist. Magical artifacts. Psychic abilities. Super powers. Alien races. Horrific monsters. Our Reality is being swept away. Agents of the Infinity Group, it is your job to find these portals and close them, to save our Reality from utter destruction.
  • Dead Man’s LandYou are the zombie. The zombie apocalypse has arrived, and you are infected (though not yet mindless and drooling). Slowly dying from the zombie plague, you are becoming more like the dead every single day. You can sense their presence. See through their eyes. And even control them. Exiled from the walled Sanctuaries where the last survivors huddle, you wander the vast territory between the few remaining outposts of normalcy and the many fallen cities of mankind, thronging with the living dead. This lifeless and hazardous terrain is your land, Dead Man’s Land.
  • Storm KnightsTorg, remastered for ∞ Infinity. (A fan’s reworking of an incredible game.)

I am excited for all of these. As development continues on ∞ Infinity, I am making notes and trying out ideas, slowly building on the core descriptions here. When the game is finished, then the real work begins.