Been a while since I waxed philosophical about RPGs, so here we go:
You know that moment in (almost) every D&D campaign where the PCs all bump into one another in some roadside inn and then, a half hour and a tankard of ale later, they’re running off with these near-total strangers to slay dragons? Did that ever rub you the wrong way?
It’s ridiculous, right? Who does that? I mean, most people don’t run around with total strangers in real life, and we live in a world devoid of roadside trolls and murderous death cults (well, okay, mostly without the death cults). I mean, it would be one thing if they all had compatible personalities, but the dwarves never get along with the elves, the wizards are always mocked by the fighters, and the thieves are always, always dickheads. How do these folks suddenly decide to risk life-and-limb together?
I mean, we all know why: it’s metagaming, pure and simple. PCs have that ‘new PC’ smell about them that draws adventuring parties like bug-zappers draw mosquitoes. You all have to hang out together or you don’t have a party. If you don’t have a party, you don’t have a game. We just tend to close our eyes, suspend our disbelief, and roll with it.
How to Deal With It
There are, of course, a variety of ways around this; ways to justify the all-important meeting and have the PCs hang out together long enough to plausibly build actual friendships. Here is a brief (and doubtlessly incomplete) list:
Option #1: They Need Each Other
This is the easiest and most straightforward method to do things. The PCs have to stick together to survive for a certain period of time. Perhaps they find themselves in a town that is under attack by horrible (whatevers) and find themselves sticking together simply to survive. Maybe they are all prisoners in the same dungeon and have to rely on one another to escape and then, of course, find themselves stuck together as fugitives from whatever force placed them in the prison to begin with.
The options are numerous, but most of them are in medias res type beginnings. This is a bonus or a drawback, depending on the kind of campaign you’re running, since an episodic game with a rotating cast will resolve the issue that is keeping them together rather quickly and then, in the next session, you find yourself back at square one. Furthermore, even in serialized games with long plot arcs, sooner or later the thing that brought them together is going to get resolved. Then we are either left closing our eyes and assuming they stick together or watching them shoot off in various directions.
Option #2: It’s Their Job
This is an easy one and can very quickly build long-term party cohesion: all of the PCs are employed by the same (whatever) and are, essentially, coworkers. They need to put up with each other whether they want to or not. They might be mercenaries, in the military, part of the same secret society, or any number of other options – all of them can work.
I’ve used this one a lot, and I can tell you a couple things. First, this set-up leads to automatic intra-party bickering. Since the characters aren’t required in any sense to like each other, many of them don’t and your players will engage in entertaining-but-time-wasting arguments with each other just for fun. Second, this an ideal set-up for a game with a rotating cast, since you can easily have this or that PC ‘transferred’ for a session or two without straining anyone’s imagination. The primary (and only) drawback of this situation is that you are relying upon external forces to keep the players together. Some players might chafe at this and, furthermore, if the external force gets removed somehow, you are back to square one.
Option #3: They Are Already Friends
This is another easy one that requires just a little background work for each character. All you need to do is have each character start with a positive relationship with at least one, but preferably two, other characters. Your PCs are already buddies, have already been through hell together, and they should join up without squabble or reservation. Give them a collective motive and bingo – you’re on your way.
There is, however, a drawback to this set-up. It is, primarily, that it limits the kinds of characters that can be plausibly connected without straining the feasibility of the relationship. If you are playing in a campaign were Fizziks and Gurkles have been at war for centuries, and one guy wants to play a Gurkle Chieftain and another guy wants to play a Fizzik Enforcer, it’s going to be a tough sell to explain how they’re friends already. You can probably make it happen, but it’s not a natural fit and will require a lot of backflips and contortions. Now, if this doesn’t bother you, then go ahead. It might bother your players, though (after all, that guy making the Fizzik Enforcer made it specifically so he could hate Gurkles and the Gurkle Chieftain had his whole family enslaved by the Fizzik Empire…).
Option #4: Don’t Even Try
There is no law in (good) RPGs that states that parties must stick together all the time to survive. I mean, that’s the case in D&D, but that is more video game than it is RPG, in my opinion, anyway. Use Option #1 just to give them an initial stick-together period and then loosen the reins. Let them go where they will, do what they will, associate with whomever they chose. The characters that most naturally would associate with each other, will. Those who wouldn’t, won’t. No biggie. It’s their game, let them explore it.
The drawback here, though, is a fairly substantial one that has two parts. Firstly, it is pretty daunting managing 3-4 storylines at a time as a GM. It takes a lot of prep, a good head for improvisation, and a sharp memory. Second, and related to the first, you’ll wind up with long periods of playtime where some players have nothing to do. When I used to run long-run campaigns, this kind of thing would happen from time-to-time (sometimes too often), and I’d have six PCs in four locations. If you were Group A, you’d be playing only 25% of the time, and the other 75% was just sitting around and listening. I was fortunate enough in most instances to have my players really engaged in the action of the game, so they often didn’t mind listening. Some, though, got bored, and I don’t blame them. If you try to use this method, make sure to keep it under control and plan on bringing the party back together sooner rather than later.
Anyway, that’s my bit on this. I should note that I mix and match all the methods fairly liberally in my game. No matter what, though, I strive very hard to keep the artificial and the meta-gamey out of my party dynamics.
Gaming properties are frequently getting revised and reinvented. For those of us old enough to remember the 1st Edition of Dungeons and Dragons and its cludgy rules or the original Metal Gear and just how freakishly difficult that game was, we’ve seen versions of our favorite games, both tabletop, pen and paper, and electronic, come and go. There have been ups and downs, granted, and some old editions so weighted down with nostalgia we have difficulty escaping them (2nd Edition AD&D, anyone?), but no matter what we think of it, whatever version of a game we’re playing now will, eventually, be replaced.
Recently, one of my favorite games – Warhammer 40,000 – entered its 6th Edition. Games Workshop, the publisher, has taken to revising its core rule system every five years, give or take. I started in 2nd Edition, which was an incredibly detailed game, but so monstrously complex and poorly balanced that I really don’t miss it, despite the nostalgia of playing chaotic battles on my basement floor or in my friend Bruce’s garage. This edition change, likewise, I find to be a fun and interesting shift in the rules. It rebalances things a bit, changes the overall dynamic of the game, and makes a stale game suddenly new and full of excitement. In most cases new editions do this rather well, assuming the development team has been able to identify that central thing that makes the game what it is.
What I find regrettable (though sadly inevitable) is the sheer number of nerds on the internet that throw absolutely gigantic hissy-fits over the idea of their old game being ‘replaced’ with the new one. This doesn’t really happen (to my knowledge) with video games much, but with RPGs and strategy games it happens all the time. Case in point, take this post or others of its like regarding the 5th-6th ed changeover. Wander around Warseer if you want to see some massive bitching.
While on the one hand I understand the displeasure with change – everybody hates change – sometimes I have to wonder at the bitterness here. For one thing, these edition changes usually leave the essential parts of the game in-tact. In 6th Ed Warhammer 40K, you can still amass giant armies of superhuman space marines to crush aliens. In 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, you can still gather together with your friends to slog through dungeons and slay dragons for treasure. Where is the problem? Furthermore, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from going back and playing an older edition of the rules if you find the change less fun for some reason.
I think, on some level, the problem with these edition changes is that folks get caught up in the minutiae of a game – certain mechanics they are familiar with and certain rules exploits they rely on exploiting to succeed. The idea that now, suddenly, their comfortable little world is overturned and the have to re-learn what they’ve learned (like some reviled n00b!) is shocking and terrifying. In this sense, one can see an edition change for an RPG or strategy game as a tiny reflection of the real world, which also has a tendency, from time to time, to knock us out of our comfortable perch and force us, through hard work and creativity, to find a new one. I daresay, then, that edition changes and the upheaval they bring to the gaming community are good for the emotional development of your average introverted geek. They learn to adapt; they grow up a bit.
If only all of us had hobbies that do the same.
If you’ve played a role playing game, be it tabletop, video, or pen-and-paper, odds are you’ve adventured in a dungeon. We all know, essentially, what those things entail: various rooms, random monsters, the odd trap, and heaps of treasure. You and your intrepid buddies tramp around these places methodically, as though shopping at the mall, hoovering up whatever gold and silver and so on you can lay your grubby mitts upon, and then leave satisfied. It’s like an Easter Egg Hunt, except with more magical swords and many fewer dyed, hard-boiled eggs.
In general, I find the average dungeon experience lacking. I’ve discussed this before when describing one of my personal favorite dungeons of my design. To quote myself:
Dungeons have a problem. They are, in their most commonly encountered form, a concept much better executed in a video game than in a pen-and-paper role-playing game. The reason for this is pretty simple: there is no conflict. That’s right–no conflict. There is no doubt that the PCs are going to scour the dungeon for all the wealth they can find. There is no doubt that the monsters encountered within are going to try to kill/eat them. Everybody is equipped to handle the problem, on both sides, and their tactics are mostly already in place. Everybody knows their job, is ready to do it, and the only thing that really matters is how the dice fall.
As mentioned in that article, I like dungeons to have some drama to them. In order to have that drama, they need a story.
When putting together a dungeon, I try to make everything fit within a certain set of themes or motifs, sort of like a wedding planner, but with knives and poison gas traps rather than doilies and name cards. The worst thing to do in a dungeon is to just slap something in there for the hell of it. You aren’t making a video game level when designing a dungeon (and one of the reasons I generally dislike video game RPGs is because of the following); you are placing a ‘real’ structure inside the fabric of a ‘real’ world and it needs to mesh with and fit into that reality. If the dungeon is infested with hordes and hordes of giant rats, you need to ask yourself the question “why are there so many rats hanging around here, anyway?” This should be followed up by “what do the rats eat?” and “how did they get here in the first place?”
These questions may seem immaterial to you, but they really aren’t. In the first place, your players are probably going to ask such questions at some point, and having an answer is infinitely better than saying ‘they just *are*, okay?’ Furthermore, exploring the answers to these questions adds to the depth of the dungeon itself (and I mean depth in the dramatic sense, rather than the physical one) and can give you much more compelling and interesting things to have your players encounter and do when within them.
To state more directly what I’m getting at, we can probably agree generally that dungeons are made up of four elements: rooms, traps, monsters, and treasure. Let’s take a look at each one and discuss the storytelling potential inherent within them.
By ‘rooms’, I mean ‘the physical layout of the dungeon’. Is it underground? Underwater? At the top of a mountain? In the sewers of a major city? Is it an old castle? A new castle? A not-yet-finished castle? Whichever of these things you pick has a profound impact on what can reasonably be found within its confines. It is extremely unlikely, for instance, that you’ll find a dragon living in a city sewer or a tribe of cannibals living in a sky-castle. Why? Well, how did they get there? What will they eat while there? Can the dragon even manage to leave?
Furthermore, you won’t find a lot of secret passages made of stone inside a wooden tree fort, just like you probably won’t find a lot of death traps in places where lots of creatures actually live (seriously, why would you make a home in a place where poison darts are likely to shoot you at any time). The type of place and when it was built indicates the kind of technology that will go into the building. Ancient ruins won’t have the latest elevator systems (unless they’re one of those super-sophisticated lost civilizations), while it would seem odd for the evil vampire’s state-of-the-art floating fortress to not use any kind of waterwheels to run its internal systems.
Figuring out the physical design of the dungeon is the starting point for your story surrounding that same dungeon. Why was it built? How did it get here? Is it still fulfilling its original purpose? If not, why not? How has it been altered? Why? What effect has that had on its layout?
Traps should be based upon the nature of the layout and rooms, as described above. They also should be used sparingly (there are only so many traps players want to spend time evading, and they never really want to solve the same trap more than once) and should be bound by some reasonable laws of physics. If you’ve got dart guns, can they reload themselves? How? Can that be interfered with? How is a trap set off? Why was it put here? Remember: traps are dangerous things for more than just the players themselves and, in most cases, the people or things that designed this dungeon didn’t expect the players to infiltrate specifically (well, it’s possible, but unlikely). That means the builders had reason and rationales for putting in the traps they did. If this is a vault, they obviously would want a way to bypass the traps so they can access said vault. If this is a tomb, they aren’t going to build in a self-destruct device (the tomb is a holy place, after all). Nobody’s going to put a firebomb trap in their fancy wooden villa. Nobody’s going to shell out the money to put a shark pit in the middle of a desert pyramid without a very good reason.
Traps, also, should be used as dramatic elements in some way. They should complicate the plot by introducing tension or conflict either among the players themselves or between them and some enemy. If you don’t plan on using a trap this way and rather merely intend to make it a simple physical obstacle to roll dice at, then why include it at all? If you set up a land mine, the intention of that land mine is to injure or kill a member of the party (likely injure) so that the rest of the party will need to make a decision on how to deal with their injured friend (this kind of trap, incidentally, works best in systems where there are penalties to action for being injured).
To my mind, dungeons should usually either involve traps OR monsters, and seldom both. If it does involve both, the monsters should have some kind of reliable way of avoiding the traps because, as mentioned above, few creatures want to live in a place where they might die in a deadfall trap if they roll over while asleep and, furthermore, if they aren’t intelligent enough to care, most of them will probably be destroyed by traps before the PCs ever need to stick swords into them.
With the possible exception of the undead, golem, and other non-living constructs, keep in mind that monsters are alive. As such, they need food, water (probably), a place to sleep, and mostly won’t be content to remain trapped within this secret dungeon forever and ever. This means that either the design of the dungeon needs to be altered to accommodate the creature living there (dragons need a big door, for instance), or the creatures need to be designed to fit with the dungeon. Also, monsters should behave in keeping with their intelligence. The aforementioned giant rats, for instance, will likely be disinclined to fight with armored humans for long, if at all, and particularly not if they start waving around scary magicks. That doesn’t mean they can’t provide dramatic complications (a squealing rat stampede, for instance, could start a fire or wake up an actually nasty monster), but nobody is going to have their legs gnawed off by twenty pound rats.
Intelligent creatures, conversely, won’t be content to stay in their ‘room’ to wait for the enemy to come to them, necessarily. It’s their dungeon–they know their way around, probably. They’ll move. They’ll set ambushes. They’ll avoid trouble. The frost giant in his ice castle probably has a pen full of hungry polar bears he can release at intruders and he’s likely to go and release them, if he can, as soon as he hears humans trashing his foyer.
Finally, treasure should be comprised of those things that would actually be kept in the dungeon in question. In some cases (sewers, for instance) there will be precious little of value. Nobody foraging through a sewer should expect to find the crown jewels; if they do, there’s a story there. The GM should pursue it somehow.
Treasure is valuable, and most valuable things belong or belonged to someone. Someone fashioned it for a purpose, put it here for a reason, and so on. This is partially the reason why cursed items make no damned sense (why would you keep the sword that stabs *you* instead of the bad guys?) unless set up for a reason, often as a kind of trap (think the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
There’s a lot of dramatic potential in treasure, and it shouldn’t be squandered.
Overall, there is enormous dramatic potential in dungeons, but it is too often not exploited because we GMs are too lazy to bother making something cool out of it. Give the place a story, set up plots related to the dungeon itself, create conflicts that reveal character rather than render it irrelevant. Mix the procedural with the dramatic.
A long, long time ago I ran a campaign in the Dungeons and Dragons setting, Ravenloft. For those of you who have never heard of it, it’s a gothic horror themed campaign setting–werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and creepier things, all stuck together in one of the most depressing worlds in existence. It was in that campaign, run between 1992 and 1995-ish, that I really cut my teeth on how to make RPGs scary (for more info on how I did/do this, see here).
I never felt, however, that I really got the most out of the campaign setting. For one thing, the high-medieval fantasy tropes of D&D don’t fit very well into a gothic horror setting. I had druids and dwarves and paladins running around stabbing things with long swords or casting ‘Cure Light Wounds’ and it kinda tanked the mood. For another, I wasn’t quite as talented a GM then as I feel I am now (well, to be honest, I wasn’t very talented at a whole lot of things–I was 14). I read a lot of the fluff text and adventure ideas and I couldn’t quite see how to make them work, and a lot of this was because I still felt the urge to make pen-and-paper RPGs work more like video games, which is a bad idea (and part of the reason I dislike 4th Edition D&D).
Some of the things I did (and do) like, however, is the structure of the world, its rules of operation, and the dramatic potential contained therein. For one thing, I LOVE the idea of the Mists. The Mists, you see, are the faceless, inhuman power that shapes Ravenloft–you wander into them, lose your way, and find yourself in some new, terrible place. They suck people in from other planes of existence, trapping them within Ravenloft with no hope of escape. These travelers are forced to wander the dark roads of the Realm of Terror, saving others and themselves from evil or, even more likely, slowly succumbing to evil themselves. It’s a kind of Quantum Leap, but in reverse. Maybe, someday, they earn their ticket home. More likely they, like Sam Beckett, remain in Ravenloft forever.
My favorite character in this campaign was Jim Bob–played by my friend Ryan–who was a Confederate soldier from the American Civil War who got sucked into Ravenloft right off a misty battlefield in Virginia. He added just the right kind of flavor to the campaign, and the drama surrounding the use of his rifled musket was absolute gold (can he load the silver shot into the muzzle before the werewolf finds him? Can he? Oh god, it’s getting CLOSER!).
I’m considering, as of this moment, running a new Ravenloft campaign. As is my wont, however, I’m not going to take it as-is–it’s getting a face lift. For one thing, in tribute to Jim Bob, I’m going to let players bring in characters from any world, any time, any place. Furthermore, the reason the Mists have sucked in these characters is because they have darkness in their soul–the Mists want them. It becomes the players’ objective to see if either (a) they can tame or purge that darkness and, therefore, earn their escape from Ravenloft or (b) succumb to their darkness, embrace it, and become one of the Dark Lords of the Realm of Terror. This is a horror RPG, but with characters with agency (not Call of Cthulhu, with its pathetic weaklings doomed to death and destruction).
The problem, however, becomes selecting the system best suited to running such a game. I’d like something that focuses on internal character development (like Burning Wheel, Riddle of Steel, etc.), but also maintains relatively simple gameplay (in accordance with the rules of horror RPGs). I was thinking of, perhaps, adapting Hunter: The Reckoning, but I don’t remember the World of Darkness system well enough to say whether it’s a good fit or not. I don’t mind writing in additional mechanics, if need be, but I don’t have the time to write up a whole new rule system. Anybody have any suggestions for me?
Anybody want to play?
Can I confess to you something? I don’t like what most people think of when they say ‘role-playing game’. I have run dozens of RPG campaigns, GMed probably thousands of sessions in my lifetime, and I feel that I have settled on what I consider to be the ‘true’ definition of a role-playing game, and it is not the same thing as what appears to be the common definition.
What is this common definition? Put simply, most RPGs are some variation of the theme ‘Killing Things to Take Their
Stuff.’ That is, your objective is to group together with your buddies, find a bad guy, kill it with your magic/guns/swords/giant robots/ninja techniques, and thereby acquire its gold/technology/experience points/chi/karma etc, etc.. Essentially every video RPG does this (MMORPGs do this to the virtual exclusion of all else), D&D is built around this mechanic, and most games inspired by or based off of the D&D structure do something similar, if not precisely the same. Even games that claim to be something else are still based off the same basic idea. The point of an RPG, to the wider world, is to go into a fanciful world of some kind, portray some kind of hero, and kill something for the purpose of acquiring X so that you can become more Y.
I hate this.
I hate this because it is completely antithetical to what I think an RPG should be. An RPG is all about the RP part, and less about the G part. To you uninitiated (and kudos for still reading this, by the way), that is to say that the Role Playing portion of the RPG takes precedence (or should) over the Game part. RPGs should always be about telling a story more than it is playing a game. The game should act as arbiter for disputes and should also function to enhance the story somehow, but it always, always, always takes a back seat to story. This underlying philosophy is why I rankle at complaints regarding ‘game balance’ in certain systems and why I rarely use the same system twice across campaigns.
Why is story so important? Well, let me answer that question with a question of my own: why is the game part important? What is it supposed to do, if not what I have thus far laid out? RPGs are not ‘competitive’ exercises, really, and they aren’t about moving spaces on a board and planning out esoteric strategies within the confines of the rules. If you want those things, play a strategy game–they do it better and they are just as much fun without having the added complications of plot and character hanging around to foul things up. This is part of my problem with the current iteration of 4th Edition D&D, which has essentially been degraded to a video game played out with miniatures and gridmaps; story is a trapping laid over top of what is basically a simplistic strategy game and a number-crunching engine. Boo!
There is so much potential for RPGs to be really, really memorable collaborative storytelling exercises. Allowing game mechanics to take precendence over story is mind-boggling, as is running a game without careful thought to how game mechanics are going to interfere with the story and addressing those concerns before play begins. The acquisition of imaginary stuff is boring, for the most part (I go more in-depth regarding my thoughts on PC gear here), and combat has nothing interesting going for it without story backing it up. At some point it stops being heart-pounding action and starts to become work. The verb ‘to grind’ is used in reference to leveling up in video games not because it’s lighthearted fun, you know, but because it’s mind-numbingly boring, repetitive, and soul-killing. I want things to be interesting all the time, or at least as much of the time as I can manage it. I want combat to be tense. I want players on the edge of their seats. I want people to cheer when they survive a deathtrap, to sigh when they make a narrow escape from the palace guards, or to grind their teeth while the villain laughs at their folly. None of that stuff happens without a focus on story; all of that stuff can be easily messed up by an over-emphasis on game mechanics.
I played an MMORPG once–Age of Camelot. I played a Dwarf named Durglethok. I spent hours and hours, more or less alone, wandering through the wilderness killing giant ants and selling their carapaces for pennies in some mountain village. I was, in essence, an exterminator who could throw lightning. After a while of this, I got bored and took a horse (which in that game was a lot like a train or a flight) to some other village. This village was surrounded by larger ants that kept killing me. I ran out of money to get another horse out of town and wound up sitting in the streets, literally begging for change. After an hour or two of doing this, I stopped myself and asked ‘why am I doing this?’ I put the game down, never played again, and have never been tempted to play another MMPORPG again. There was no interesting story in which to involve myself–I was a peon in a world very much like our own, except without a functioning welfare system. The designers had the audacity to request money from me for this privledge. Ugh…
It’s much the same feeling I get when I watch friends of mine spend hours and hours playing Morrowind or now, I suppose, Skyrim. It’s the same grumble I feel in my gut when I hear that there are D&D ‘tournaments’ where they apparently crown winners and losers of some kind. It’s an offense to what this genre of entertainment is capable of. They’re taking the opportunity to let the players star in their own personal movie or adventure story and degrading it to basic exercises in probability and economics. On the whole, I’d rather play Axis and Allies, if that’s the way we’re going. Those of you who know me know just what a damning admission that is.