Friday, August 29, 2014

Breaking Down a Campaign Framework

I'm always creating page after page of RPG material, but I seldom follow through far enough to create something truly publishable.  I'm always getting requests for my notes, and I always have to demure because they're really little more than "What is necessary to run my specific game." In a few weeks, I hope to change that record and kick out the first bit of an actual GURPS campaign framework.

That pre-amble out of the way, allow me to make a few definitions.  What the hell is a GURPS campaign framework?  It's what I've decided to call books like GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, GURPS Action and GURPS Monster Hunters.  They provide everything you need to run a campaign except the specifics on plot, character and setting (but further provides guidelines on all three of those). Said differently, a campaign framework provides a distillation of the GURPS rules necessary for rapidly building characters, sessions and interesting gameplay for a particular genre.

This blog post will break-down what I think a campaign framework needs, but to do that, you must permit me one more definition, and to make that definition, I want to show you another definition: Philip K. Dick's definition of science fiction:

I will define science fiction, first, by saying what science fiction is not. It cannot be defined as 'a story set in the future,' [nor does it require] untra-advanced technology. It must have a fictitious world, a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society... that comes out of our world, the one we know:
This world must be different from the given one in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society…
There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation…so that as a result a new society is generated in the author's mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader's mind, the shock of dysrecognition.

[In] good science fiction, the conceptual dislocation---the new idea, in other words---must be truly new and it must be intellectually stimulating to the reader…[so] it sets off a chain-reaction of ramification, ideas in the mind of the reader; it so-to-speak unlocks the reader's mind so that that mind, like the author's, begins to create…. The very best science fiction ultimately winds up being a collaboration between author and reader, in which both create---and enjoy doing it, [experiencing] the joy of discovery of newness.
So, to be clear, Philip K. Dick doesn't think Star Wars is science fiction!  Does that mean that Mr. Dick is a... jerk?  No, I don't think so.  It doesn't mean his definition is wrong either.  It's not prescriptive so much as descriptive of what he's trying to do.  He's not being a snob, he's outlining a model that explains what he's shooting for.  "All models are wrong, some models are useful," as the saying goes.

With that in mind, I want to offer a definition of a role-playing game, not because I feel anything that falls outside of it is "not really roleplaying," but because it defines what I'm trying to create: A role-playing game is a confluence between the tension created by interesting mechanical gameplay and interesting narrative choices.  To unpack that: When people say they enjoy "fluff," they mean they enjoy the inspiration and complex choices created by an interesting narrative.  When people say they enjoy "crunch" they're describing their enjoyment of the complex choices created by interesting gameplay mechanics.  These two sides often argue, but I think they miss the point that RPGs are designed as the wonderful peanut-butter-and-chocolate mixture of rich narrative mixed with complex gameplay.

GURPS itself provides neither.  There is no GURPS setting and there is precious little GURPS gameplay (Nothing stops me, rules-as-written, from taking telepathy and ruining all the mysteries in a police procedural).  Rather, it provides us with the tools, the "design language" to create our own settings and gameplay (Nothing stops you, rules-as-written, from creating interesting consequences to the use of telepathy, and littering the world with dangerous psychics, anti-psychics, technological mind-shields, or drug-induced nightmarish "mind-traps." BOOM!  Interesting gameplay for a police procedural involving telepathy).  Many GURPS veterans have created rich campaigns all on their own.  But a campaign framework does a lot of that work for you.  You don't need one, but you're effectively creating your own, so why not build it out enough that anyone can use it?

A GURPS campaign framework defines the "fluff" of its campaign mostly in broad strokes.  The specific setting doesn't matter as much.  Monster Hunters works as well in Los Angeles as Cairo as the hills of Kentucky. But a campaign framework does depend on some setting conceits: Monster Hunters exists in a world where magic and monsters are real, monsters and magic works in a particular (and specific) way, and things like genetically engineered super-soldiers are real (though rare or secret).  Likewise, the specifics of characters are left to players and GM, but the framework outlines the details lightly.  Dungeon Fantasy has wizards, and wizards tend to have problems like being excommunicated or feared, while Knights tend not to have any actual, defined status, and so on.  Similarly, it doesn't really define the specifics of a plot, but you can infer what sort of plot you might have.  What a campaign framework mostly does is set up the premise.  Once the premise is established, then we can build gameplay.

And building gameplay is the primary focus of a campaign framework.  When I see people discussing these frameworks and building their own, they always start with templates.  This is a mistake.  Before you can build templates, you must understand niches.  Before you can understand niches, you must understand the pulse of gameplay.  The first framework book to write is always the second released: Dungeon Fantasy 2: Dungeons; Action 2: Exploits; Monster Hunters 2: the Mission.

"A game is a series of interesting choices"
-Sid Meier

To understand gameplay, you must pick a focus for that gameplay.  Said differently, when the dice come out, what are the players doing?  What sort of choices do the players make?  Good gameplay creates a series of interesting, interrelated choices that creates an emergent narrative that, ideally, emulates the sort of genre we're exploring.  A game meant to emulate a heroic shonen anime should have a variety of interesting tactical decisions that, when chosen in an optimal way, naturally result in explosive, emotion-laden power, tangled relationships and exceedingly dramatic and dynamic battles full of people flying around and blasting each other.  A game meant to emulate Game of Thrones should have interesting choices that result in betrayal and heroes bleeding out in gutters while cynical villains slip back into the shadows to win a morally-grey victory in an uncaring, medieval world.

The first step, then, is to focus on a mechanics mission statement.  What do the player characters do by default?  Kill monsters and take their stuff?  Conspire to hide magic from the world while advancing their own political and mystical power?  Seek out new life and new civilizations while boldly going where no man has gone before, followed by sleeping with new women and punching out new alien warlords?  Once you have that, the next step is to pull out additional detail in our gaming fractal.  Killing monsters and taking their stuff, obviously, involves at least two parts, the killing and the taking, and might infer a few more, like knowing which monsters to kill, or where to find the stuff.  After we pull out these elements, we can keep or discard as we please.  Taking a monster's stuff likely involves selling it, but most players don't associate mercantile skill or deep haggling mini-games as a serious element of Dungeon Fantasy, so we remove that.

Once we understand what our game is about, we can start building the actual nuts and bolts of gameplay.

Obstacles consist of four things: Dilemma, Choices, Consequences, and Rooting Interest.
-Robin Laws (Paraphrased)
Once we know where are gameplay is, we need to decide what it looks like.  Gameplay will generally consist of facing what Robin Laws, above, calls obstacles.  The most important elements are, to me, the last three, and starting with the last first: Rooting Interest means you must explain why the heroes care.  Dungeon Fantasy does this easily by pointing out, helpfully, that the monsters have stuff and you want stuff.  Moreover, the monsters are trying to kill you and most people are interested in not dying.  Games like GURPS Action have a harder time establishing rooting interest, and tend to require fluffier reasons for doing what they do.  Nonetheless, there should always be a benefit for success, or what some people in the biz call "Risk vs Reward."

“Failure is boring – the credible threat of failure is very exciting.”
-Amanda Lang

Next, we need our series of interesting choices.  This ties in with consequences.  There must be multiple ways to achieve one's goal, and they must all be equally interesting (this is what game designers mean by "game balance"), but that doesn't mean they must all be the same.  Different tactics should involve different risks and different, long-term consequences.  Those consequences can be short-term or long-term or both, and the consequences needed necessarily be negative.  Much of chess's gameplay choices turns on positioning: to capture your piece, I must move my piece to the captured piece's spot.  This fundamentally changes the board, and might expose my piece to counter attack, or open up the field for further attack against you.  D&D 4e and Gumshoe use resources, which means you can expend a great deal of power to defeat a threat now, at the cost of being unable to defeat another threat later on.  Call of Cthulhu allows magic at the cost of sanity, which means the use of game-winning powers will likely result in a permanent reduction of your hero's power.

Ideally, our choices involve several of the above, allowing the heroes to way the risks against the rewards and the potential fallout of a course of action, and those consequences shape future choices (This is the "sequence" that Sid Meier refers to).  This creates our emergent play.  As my D&D fighter rushes forward and lays down an area attack on several foes, this has the consequence that I'm no longer near the other PCs, but all of those enemies have been effectively "pinned" near mine, which keeps them from attacking my allies, but means they're highly likely at attack me, which might be dangerous to myself.  I've made a choice, and gained both rewards and consequences that will affect the next turn (My position, my expenditure of a resource).  The enemy will react to my new position and my new vulnerabilities differently, which means I may be swamped by enemies, or might have them scatter.  Then, I have a new set of choices that didn't exist before, limited by the fact that I've already expended some of my power (a condition that didn't exist before).

Once we've defined those choices, we can determine which traits interact with them and what general paths our choices tend to guide us along.  A combat character who tends to focus on strategies of survival and focusing enemy attention on him is following a "tank" strategy.  That's his core toolkit, the set of choices he intends to maximize.  A combat character who intends to focus on removing his opponents before they can remove him is following a "striker" or "sniper" strategy. From these strategies, we can start to derive our niches, and from those niches, we can derive our templates.  And from our templates, we can write a template book.

This works because we have determined what makes each core game mechanic interesting, and how these templates interface with them, and what traits matter and why.  Monster Hunters, for example, has two major gameplay arenas: Finding the monster and killing it.  Each template has alternate strategies for finding the monster, and each template has means by which to kill it, and these overlap.  The Crusader has just enough skill to find the monster, and then has overwhelming lethality with which to destroy the monster in a full, frontal assault.  The sage, on the other hand, prefers to linger in the research phase, trying to determine what the monster's weakness might be and use that against him.  Both can team up to allow specialization and magnification of one another's strengths, but this too creates new vulnerabilities, and doesn't address additional issues and potential consequences (Remaining hidden from both the world and the monsters you hunt is a vital part of monster hunting, and requires a different strategy).

Once we've built our core gameplay, all that remains is to make sure it's attached to the rooting interest of the players themselves.  Base motivations can work, but tying everything into a deeper narrative is what makes RPGs far more compelling than mere Monopoly, Parcheesi or Stratego.  But that's an article for another time.
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