Friday, June 3, 2016

Nobilis: Tackling the Session-Building Problem

Last time in this series, I talked about a failed campaign.  I boiled the problem down to three issues:

  • Personal Stagefright/Pressure
  • Player/GM disconnect
  • Session Prep
Personal Stagefright is going to be an ongoing issue, and won't be the focus of today's post.  The best advice I can give is "Just do it!" as once I start to run a game, everything usually falls into place.

I have progress on the Player/GM disconnect to report.  Having dropped those two players, Raoul suggested a new addition, Xavier, who absolutely lives in a world of pop-culture references, meta-jokes and super-heroes, thus making him an ideal match for the game.  I've talked to the rest of the remaining players, who are both enthusiastic and patient, and a GM could ask for nothing more.

That just leaves the session-prep problem, which I'd like to spend today's post discussing.

The Session Prep Problem

I'm a planner.  I want to dive deep into something and explore for ages before I come up for air and actually run it.  I'm not a wannabe author, as some people accuse excessive planners like myself, because I don't care that much about the direction of the story (obviously I want cool dramatic moments, but I'm more delighted by accidental drama than I am by planned drama).  The intent of my planning is to understand the backdrop of the world and what I want out of my campaign.

All this planning should serve a purpose beyond my tinkering for the sake of tinkering (a trait I share with many GURPS GMs, I'm afraid).  Ideally, when my planning is finished, I should understand the campaign well enough that sessions practically write themselves.  That's the goal.  The idea is that while I'm all enthusiastic and obsessed that I make use of that obsession to do all the heavy lifting, and then over the next year, when I'm less enthusiastic, I can coast off of my previous efforts.

But to do that, I need to direct my material towards what will be useful to my campaign and to session prep, and for that, I need to identify what I need for a session.

A Recipe for a Session

What do I need for a session?  People will disagree, but here's my experience.

A Playground

The point of an RPG is to create a space where players can play.  Too many GMs forget that, but the average D&D DM doesn't.  They understand that the point of the adventure is the dungeon crawl and the moment-by-moment fights.  I argue that this is true of all games, but what play the players engage in differs.

Nobilis' play largely centers on understanding self-made rules and arguing about how best to achieve a specific result using those self-made rules in a consistent manner, often using word-play, twisted logic and riddling.  An example of this sort of scenario might be to face the heroes off against the God of War in combat.  The players might defeat him by using the Power of Love ("Love Conquers All, therefore, love can defeat war.").  Alternatively, they might defeat him by better understanding him ("War brings suffering to millions," so if we can create a situation where the God of War is, in fact, bringing pleasure to millions, we might drive him off, or even fundamentally undermine what he represents!  What about a well-edited reality show about the God of War's exploits?")

The structure of these challenges are typically as follows: First, the characters encounter the unbeatable rule-structure/scenario, usually in a dramatic context ("The God of War raises his armies against your lands!").  Then, the players learn to understand the rules ("We have finally broken into the Library of Death and have found the original copy of Sun Tzu's the Art of War, written by one of the Anchors of War!  Let's see what it says about the nature of the Estate of War"), then we have a climactic showdown between the two where, ideally, I unveil some unexpected surprises that remain consistent with what I have said about the nature of the challenge ("Wait, the God of War wasn't the general at the head, but the diplomat who has been with us the whole time?  Oh of course, 'War is diplomacy by other means!'") and then with this complete understanding, players are able to solve the conundrum and win the day.

Thus, I need an interesting and challenging set of rules ("the Estate"), a way of presenting them, a way of letting them learn its secrets, a way of surprising them, and a way for them to defeat it... though I don't necessarily have to think of all of these things myself, but I should at least have an idea, in case players get stuck, and to make sure that my challenge isn't accidentally unbeatable.

Structure

I feel that an RPG session should be more than just a game, it should have something of a narrative structure.  It should reasonably flow from one challenge to another in a way that makes narrative sense and engages the players.

The start is usually the hardest, because players have shown up at your session "cold." They're not yet in character, not yet "in the right headspace." You have yet to create the shared imagination space.  Thus, the first step is best taken by he who is best prepared: the GM.  I understand other strategies exist, but this is mine.

After the beginning has kicked off, there needs to be a logical sequence of events that follow some kind of rhyme and reason.  A straight-up sequence is what we call a "railroad" ("First you fight the goblins, then you fight the orcs, then you fight the dragon.").  A more satisfying structure branches out to allow freedom ("You've killed the goblins.  There are two doors, one leads to orcs, the other leads to skeletons, which way will you go?") for your players while still maintaining some kind of cohesion.  Even better is a sort of map or a reactive diagram. ("Here's the dungeon, you can go where you want, but I see you've killed the goblins.  Hmm, that means the Goblin Shaman is alerted to your presence and he's going to attack.  How are you guys planning on dealing with that?")

A session needs a good wind-up and ending, to make things memorable and prep for the next session, but these are difficult to plan outright, as player interactions will intervene.  The railroad makes it simple ("Okay, you killed the dragon, game over!").  Branching structure makes it relatively easy ("Okay, you goes chose to side with the sorceress over the dragon, and so you fight the dragon").  The map/reactive structure is harder.  There's a few ways you can dramatically end a session.  First, is to wait for something dramatic to happen when it's getting late, and then close it around that point.  Another is to sort of force a dramatic thing to happen ("And then suddenly, a dragon!").  Finally, you can wind the player's options down as the night starts to get late, turning it away from a free-form map and back into a branch-or-railroad structure.

A Direction

The point of a campaign is that it's a campaign.  It has many sessions back to back, and ideally these are coherently connected, rather than just a string of unrelated adventures.  The point here is to know what direction you're going in, and to drop clues of that direction so that later revelations don't come out of nowhere ("Who is this Dark Elf Goddess?  Oh wait, isn't she connected to that statuette that we stole from the dragon?  The one the murdery cultists have been trying to get from us?  Okay, it makes total sense she would show up").

For this, it's usually enough to know where things are going, broadly speaking, to have a larger map, and to have a larger structure for your campaign.  Ideally, you should allow player input into this, but it's slower, as it's the sort of thing that happens from session to session, rather than moment to moment.  For example, the choice of the sorceress over the dragon might reshape how the campaign will look later on, but that's not something that a GM needs to worry about in the heat of the moment, and it's in that "Heat of the Moment" I'm worried about.

He does need to worry about dropping those clues in there, in a manner appropriate to his structure and playground.

Character

A session needs to be more than just meta-narrative over gameplay.  It needs character.  The enemies they face need names, descriptions, coherent motivations.  The places they find themselves in need the same.  This is the setting-building part, where we find artwork, write backstory, fuss over little details like personality quirks and descriptive flourishes ("The Sorceress has a strand of blond hair that falls over one eye.  She really, really likes to get flowers and stuffed animals, but is really embarrassed by this because she thinks it's beneath her, so she hides her fascination.  The Sorceress was trained by the Evil Necromancer, but believes he can still be redeemed and seeks a way to break the Lich's curse on him.") that turn stat-blocks into people, and give narrative events meaning and weight.

Tools for Session Building

Building a Playground

The easiest, fastest way to build a playground is, in my experience, a monster manual.  In my experience, the average DM just grabs a monster manual and a book of traps and starts to design what might be an interesting scenario.  Often, a particular set of creatures already has an interesting design, so it's just a matter of including them and perhaps working out a few specifics to make it a little interesting.

The closest thing Nobilis has to a monster manual is Chancel Aleph.  As I stated previously, Nobilis isn't really about defeating your opponent.  That might be the stated goal of the scenario, but you don't just punch each other in the face until one of you falls over.  Many enemies in Nobilis are immortal and invincible: You cannot hope to defeat most full-on Excrucians or Imperators, or even most fellow Nobilis.  Instead, you struggle to understand them and what they stand for, and then use their own rules against them.  Chancel Aleph is a pile of rules.

Planning wise, we can build our own estates, our own rules, our own "bestiary." Then when it comes to a particular challenge, we simply pull out one of the existing characters/settings/critters and perhaps mix it with a few others.

Lady Blackbird uses a different approach.  It offers up challenges in the same way the Monster Manual offers up Monsters.  It does this because Lady Blackbird doesn't much care about stats... but the thing is, neither does Nobilis.  Oh, sure, we can fuss over the exact stats of a bear, but for the most part, it's just a toy for our miracles.  But discussing how certain settings or certain elements could provide interesting challenges themselves might allow me to playground on the fly, if the scene goes in a completely different direction.

Structure and a Direction

Both of these demand that a GM knows where things are going but also requires that the GM give his players sufficient freedom that he doesn't know where things are going.  Thus, we have to plan for the unplannable.  How do we do that?

I've done it once with Slaughter City, which I believe I've mentioned on this blog.  It was a vampire game that included 100 NPCs all tied together in a grand web of relationships and associations.  The net result was that when one of my PCs slaughtered one of the big bads on session two... I knew exactly what to do.  And when one of the other players tried to short-circuit an entire adventure by bypassing an enemy by going to his boss... I knew exactly what to do.  Because I had a structure in place, all that was really going on was that the players were navigating this giant social map, learning its secrets, understanding what was going on.

Vampire is very specific and it benefits from having a lot of (expendable!) mortals.  An NPC chart that large would either become unwieldy and cumbersome very quickly if it focused on Nobles ("Quick, work out a hundred estates!"), or it would be utterly futile if it focused on mortals ("Oh look, another human that doesn't matter.") Nobilis games tend to be more intimate.  But they're also more organized.  Each Noble has an Imperator, and while they do not work as a unit, there is some cohesion there.

Which reminds me of another chart that I'm quite fond of: Kenneth Hite's Conspyramid, which is based on a "Push diagram" by another designer, but I have been unable to find where the "push diagram" came from (Curse you, Google, you have failed me for the last time!")

The idea is this: You create a group of characters that are interrelated in a hierarchical fashion, but also with indications of how that group might react.  If you start to fight the group, they'll start to use their fighty branch.  If you start to investigate, the group might counter with its cover-up branch, and so on.  As you deal with the group, you slide higher up the chart, dealing with each particular problem until you've reached the beating heart of the conspiracy.

This won't work exactly either because while Nobles have a heirarchy (Imperator > Nobles > Anchors), Nobles already start in the middle of that pack, and people don't exactly hide from one another.

But we do have a third chart we could borrow inspiration from: the Weapons of the Gods relationship chart, which indicates how each character is related to one another, what they want from each other, and how you can pressure them.

This is closer to what we're looking for as Imperators and their Nobles are often incestuous and soap-operatic, but if we mingle this with the goals and actions of the conspyramid, we might start to have something of a decent reaction chart that I can use to react to unexpected changes with aplomb.

This will also create direction if I design the charts around my intended direction.  That is, there is a greater mystery, a greater conspyramid that the characters are legitimately working their way through, one clue at a time, and just like in Slaughter City, the intent is to create a "map" that they can explore, but one based on mysticism, myth, relationships and secret agendas.

Building Character

Gnome Stew has an article on the 3-3-3 Approach, which is arguably just a variation of the Rule of 3, and also too simplistic for me.  I don't want the sort of game that happens when you just jot down a single page of one-line ideas and then try to build something meaningful out of it.  I've played in those games, and they're fine, but I can do better, and I have, and I want to again.

But the approach when paired with the above preparations isn't so bad.  I often include a list of 5 names, 5 interesting details, 5 interesting themes, 5 interesting places, and a smattering of descriptive details that I can draw on when I'm stuck or lost.  The idea is to have a bank of quick-inspiration that I can use when I'm feeling lost.

What Session Design Looks Like

So, say I have all my tools in place.  I can see all the imperators and their relationships and motivations.  I can see the larger structure of clues, mysteries and secret actors.  I know what all the estates are.  It should be a simple matter of:
  • Taking the next clue the players need to unravel
  • Choosing an imperator-group to trouble them
  • Using some of their given estates to create an interesting playground
  • Jotting down 3 sets of 3 things to give the session extra character and dynamism.
And finally, to take the pressure off of myself
  • Trust in my prep
  • Trust in my improvisation skills (which are better than I think)
  • Trust in my players (because they're great)
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