Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Minimum Viable Session

"This is the sort of thing that kills my campaigns."

I growled that comment over IM to Raoul Roulaux.  As one of my Nobilis players, I think he had a suspicion as to what I was talking about.  We have a good relationship, often complaining to one another, only to get advice on how to solve a particularly sticky gaming problem, and our preferred tactics is asking questions, a habit gained either from reading one too many of Plato's dialogues, or from being veterans GMs.

"What are you talking about?"

"The Reincarnation Engine.  That took forever, and honestly, I haven't finished half of what I wanted to."

"If that's the sort of thing that ends a campaign, why do it?  What exactly is the problem?"

"It's not the Reincarnation Engine specifically.  It's just that I get a vision, and then I can't finish it before the deadline."

"But what's finished?" He asked me.

And I was enlightened.

The MVP in Software Engineering

The minimum viable product
I work as a software developer, and I'm often struck by how software development is a fundamentally creative process, thus what I learn as a software developer applies to my own work as a game developer (if you will).

One concept that we often describe as an "anti-pattern," something that tends to cause problems, is a "waterfall design." We envision a completed product, document it, build it, test it, then deliver it.  It's a "big bang," all-or-nothing proposition: the top line in that "Minimum viable product" picture.  You either have a car, or you don't.  If you don't, then I tell you to wait.  But what if you can't wait?  What if the deadline has passed and you have no car?  Then you're pissed.  Plus, what if it takes the time that it'll take and we're tied to a specific goal?  Creativity is proscribed.

So, "Agile development" was proposed as an alternative.  The idea is to finish now with the simplest version of the product possible: the minimum viable product.  Then, you can see if it works or not. If you ask me for some form of transportation and I hand you a skateboard, it might not be great, but you have it now, so you're already better off, and we can learn more about what you need or don't. Maybe that's actually enough!  Maybe you like its portability and cheapness.  Perhaps you want something more.  Based on that more, the design evolves as you can see above.  And perhaps the deadline hits at point 4.  Well, a motorcycle isn't a car, but it's better than a skateboard, and it's better than no car at all!

If we create a hard requirement and a firm deadline, then the only thing that can change is us.  We have to work harder and harder to make it fit, and it ruins our mood and our spirit.  That's fine if you're being paid for it, but not for doing something creative.  If, instead, we focus on a minimum viable product, then everything becomes flexible, and we can play with results sooner (we can "Fail faster") to see if there's anything we need to change, rather than getting dangerous surprises at the end.

The Minimum Viable Session

My previous approach was waterfall.  Perhaps you can relate to it: The day, or the week, before the session, I'd sit down to write up some notes.  What was I working towards?  I wasn't sure.  I'd find a theme or a question or an image and work towards that, or I'd know what needed to be done and try to find a way to make that happen.  Once I knew what I wanted, I worked to get it done: Perhaps I needed 10 NPCs and a dungeon map and a few riddles and 3 encounters, and I needed some interesting descriptions, narrative twist, etc.  I'd get to working on these, and if it was particularly involved, I'd find I'd run out of time.  Then I'd want to push the campaign back to get back to work.  I'd be demoralized and my players patient, then impatient, and then playing with someone else.  It wasn't working.

My solution has been to waterfall like a sonofabitch.  You can see it with Psi-Wars and with my current design of Nobilis.  By having everything I could possibly need in advance, I could easily and quickly do design work the moment that I needed it.  The alternative is to "just wing it," but I find those are often highly unsatisfactory adventures.  I'd rather have the Lord of the Rings than Hello from the Magic Tavern, as much as I like both.  I want a sense of depth and reality, and ideas like "Have three things on an index card and wing the rest" didn't appeal to me.

But Raoul is right: What is "Finished?"  Does my session really need all 10 NPCs and that dungeon map?  In fact, could I not do it with a few interesting notes and winging the rest?  I could, of course.  So, if we do that right now, then our session is done, and I have time to spare.  What am I going to do with that time?  Gold-plate!  Now I can add a map, or details on a single encounter.  Have more time? Two more encounters and a fleshed out NPC!  We can keep going until it's game time.  Then I'm 100% confident in my session, because I know it works.  I know it could be more, it could be better, but it could always be better.  

The session is never really finished.  At some point, we have to draw a line and say "And now we run it." It might not be everything I had hoped, but no session at all is definitely not what I had hoped either.

Building the Minimum Viable Session

So how does this work? I don't know!  I've not done it yet, and I'm working from theory here, but here's what I'd like to try.

The first step in session creation is this: within a day of the last session ending, I'll sit down and write out the basic minimum things I need for the next session.  Those are typically:
  • The concept behind the session
  • The core question/conflict that interests the players
  • The larger point the session illustrates in the overall campaign (clues, furthering the plot, etc)
  • The PCs reason to be there
  • A hard plan for how everything fits together, so we can move from one scene to another.
Everything else expands on these elements and makes them more interesting.  I fill in each detail with as little work as possible until I am satisfied that I have a minimum viable session.

Next, over the period of time between this session and the next one, when inspiration strikes, I'll add additional detail.  If I feel there is a complicated element that needs additional work, then I'll time-box it ("Okay, but spend no more than 3 days on it").  Within the last three days before the session deadline (the session itself), I'll review my notes and add any additional elements that I might like.  The day before the session is only for review, "rehearsal" and relaxing.

Then, on the day of, I run, with whatever I've worked out by this point.

By working on the design as far from the deadline as possible, and by minimizing the amount of work necessary, I ensure that I'll succeed at creating a session.  By giving myself plenty of leadtime, I can take the session to even greater heights.  By preventing myself from panicking on the day before, then I can relax into the session and really enjoy it.

This is not to say that working on stuff ahead of time as I am now is necessarily a waste (though it might be an experiment to try an MVS campaign design, moving as quickly as possible with getting a great campaign up and running) as I can use it to simplify the process.

Building a Minimum Viable Nobilis Session

Since Nobilis inspired this, we can use Nobilis as an example, and why do one thing when we can do two?  We can plan the next session of the Price of Tea in Vancouver.

What's gone on so far?  The players have found the dead body of Abigail Ng, the Power of Tea.  They've uncovered a variety of clues:
  • Jenny Cho recognizes her. They went to school together, where they share a journalism class. She knows Abigail is a British exchange student, voraciously curious, that she had a friend from out of town, and that she had a boyfriend that nobody had ever met. Abigail had given her something to hold onto, but Jenny can't remember what it was anymore.
  • Abigail has a locket at her throat that contains a picture of Yukimura Yuji, the world's greatest barista.
  • Abigail's wallet contains two dollars, a well-loved photo of herself, Yukimura Yuji and another girl, but the other girl's face has been scratched out, and a pair of Aquapunk tickets.
  • She's wearing a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, which have been broken.
  • Close investigation of Abigail's body fails to yield a cause of death, as there doesn't seem to be one.
  • Abigail's finger seems to be pointing, but the players could not determine what she was pointing at. She seems to be pointing at nothing.
  • Scattered around her body are:
    • Broken mirror shards
    • A revolver bullet with Abigail's name on it, the sort of bullet fired from a Colt revolver, but it has been set into the casting of a rifle round, that typically used by a sniper.
    • Lots of papers. Some contain unreadable text, some seem to be files for a government program called "RELICS", a bit of paper with a grain of sand taped to it with the words "They knew," "the Dragon has it in his hoard" and "The Empress still lives" and "She's coming" written on it.
Cameron Delacroix and Meon, Desecration's Regal, both showed up and seemed to want to hide things about the body.  Now, Meon has demanded to have all the Powers come together to discuss this murder, and to figure out what to do about it.  They have chosen the Tacoma's Chancel as the location for this meeting.

The Concept of the Session: Mourning Spilled Tea

The point of the session is to 
  • meet the other powers, 
  • to be introduced to the chancel (which means I should encourage the players to come up with something about their chancel!), and 
  • to learn more about the mystery.  
  • It's also a chance to reflect on the meaning of Tea and its importance to the world at large.
Meeting the powers involves having them come in, introduce themselves and give their positions.  These are:
  • Belphegor
    • Magnus Carter
    • Chad Kroeger
    • Damien Bogsworth
  • Azrael
    • Deadwood
    • Zee
  • Kirin
    • The Power of Immigration?
    • The Power of Education?
  • Other Powers
    • Meon
    • Rajani Jones, the power of Coffee.
I'm obviously missing some bits there that might be worth looking at, but perhaps they're not there.  So if I had to run it tomorrow, I would just skip those two, even though I have some concepts in my head about them.

Being introduced the chancel simply requires some cool descriptive elements and perhaps a conflict.  But the grand visions I want to give are these:
  • The Tacoma lazing about his magma-lit cavern in the belly of the Lost City, surrounded by his treasures, perhaps being entertained by his latest kidnapped princess.
  • The sweeping, decaying and ancient architecture of the Lost City, it's many treasures (gold literally glinting in the streets)
  • The scraps of secret knowledge, the scent of its dusty promise of lost lore, when someone approaches a library or a philosopher's home
  • The people of the Lost City, scantily clad in heroic antiquity, with silken gowns flowing around the curves of women, and bearded, bare-chested men sitting on marble benches, articulating some intellectual point to awed children.  Jewels hang on their brows and swirling tattoos announcing lineage and allegiance.  They bear the features and skin-tones of exotic, lost peoples.
Of course, what the players come up with might be different, and that's fine! This is just the first stab at having something.

To reflect on the loss of Tea, we make a point of Kirin mourning the loss of her Power, and we have a funeral, a somber ending to the session.  This would be a distinct scene, an optional one ("Eh, I don't want to go to her funeral") that takes place after the meeting.
  • Rain falls across Vancouver, the unquenchable tears of Kirin at the loss of her Power.  Nearby, in Dr. Sun Yat-Sen's garden, the rain splashes in pools and patters off of the weeping willows. The shadows of golden koi dart below the water, but never come to the surface. In a field of green, a single blossom blooms white: a lotus.
  • Tea-green tendrils already wrap around a decidedly Victorian tombstone, dedicated in loving memory to Abigail Ng.  Black-clad mourners cluster close, beneath the rain.  They place lillies, lotus flowers and gorse at her grave.  "Her favorite flowers," her mother will murmur.
  • The Priest is Anglican and speaks flawless English, but is clearly of Chinese descent.
This would be an excellent time to introduce additional characters connected to her.
  • Jenny Cho, her classmate.  She's forgotten her encounter and is missing her grandmother's necklace, but neither is a terribly important part.
  • Rajani Jones, the only girl wearing color in the entire funeral party (bright, sunny yellow) and carrying gorse.
  • Yukimura Yuji, lingering in the back, unsure of how to approach his great love with Rajani watching.
  • Deadwood, out of respect
  • Kirin, perhaps, in disguise.

The Challenge of the Session

There's no necessary challenge.  The point of the session is just to meet people and get further clues.  That's enough.  If I want more, I can use the Banes (surely the Chancel belonging to Glory, Adventure, Thrills and Secrets is crawling with monsters) and the rules of the estate for the players against them.  I had a thought of three different peoples vying for "rulership" of the chancel (the Tacoma is content to be the King of Monsters, slumbering in its depths)
  • Philosopher Kings, the heirs to the lost civilizations of antiquity
  • The Sea-Peoples, spooky elf/mermaid people who are part Avalon and part Atlantis, lurking in the waters around the Lost City, seeking to reclaim it.
  • The Mountain People, the heirs to Hyperborea and lost Russian cities, barbarian giants who cast jealous eyes at the Lost City
And we could probably make hay of their various conflicts, which the Powers would want to keep from spilling over into the meeting itself (The Nobilis Equivalent of your college professors all descending into your dorm room as you scramble to hide your mess in the closet and hope it doesn't suddenly spill out while you're doing Terribly Important Things).

But that's not necessary.  I'll skip it for now.

The Clues of the Session

Obviously, I have to direct the players on to the next part of the adventure.  At the risk of violating my own rules, I'm not going to discuss that here because I want to keep it spoiler free, and this is an exercise.  But the point here is to have at least three things I can drop to give the players a new direction to go in.

The Reason the PCs are there

Because this is in their chancel, and Meon will kill them if they're not there.  This is their duty.  Simple enough.

Strict Planning

  1. Scene I: Preparation for their arrival
    1. The purpose of this scene is to introduce the players to the chancel.  Any challenges I may have come up with are here.  If I have none, I can ask the players for particular challenges they might expect to come up with and to add any interesting elements.
    2. They can decide what the event will look like and I can decide how that will be received.  This can include
      1. Food
      2. Entertainment
      3. Seating arrangements
    3. The Tacoma will summon both Red and Jack and offer to give one a secret they can bear, but they must choose who bears the secret.  The other may eaves drop if they wish, but doing so will violate the will of another (Not his will).  The one who chooses will learn of the Riddle of Dremmerick, and be told to seek its answer.  The other, if they choose to eaves drop, must resist an Imperial Miracle.
  2. Scene II: Meeting the Powers
    1. Have each power come in one at a time, perhaps lead by their powers.
      1. Azrael: Timely and annoyed
        1. Deadwood, cordial to Red
        2. Zee, who fangirls over Jack and seems friendly with Sebastian, and refuses to take the meeting seriously
      2. Belphegor, composed and hostile
        1. Magnus Carter, stiff and interested in getting in touch with Red
        2. Damien, hostile to Jack and Hazel
        3. Chad Kroeger, sullen (and doesn't want to get involved with anyone?)
      3. Kirin, mournful
      4. Meon, vengeful and smiling
  3. Scene III: Arguing over Tea
    1. Meon and Azrael (the latter more reluctant) will argue that Cameron did the deed, that it's open and shut and everyone should just commit to the war right now.
    2. Damien will argue that since the Tacoma's powers found her, they must have had something to do with it.
    3. Deadwood, if asked, will explain that he was there when she died, but does not know who did it. "That's not really my priority then."  He will say he doesn't think that Cameron killed her, though he thinks "He wields the sort of power that could have done it."
    4. Kirin will demand to set aside the war until the killer is found.  She will accuse Meon and Lord Entropy of using this war to further their own ends.
    5. Eventually Belphegor will propose that some Powers be assigned to solve the mystery of Abigail Ng.
      1. Let the group argue over whom should investigate.  The group leans heavily towards the Powers of the Tacoma, because they know the most about the situation.  Others put forward might be:
        1. Damien Bogsworth, for having a beast that found her
        2. Deadwood, for having the greatest understanding of death
    6. Meon finally declares who the group will be, based on the arguments made by all involved (by default, it will be at least one person from the Tacoma's Powers.  He will favor Sebastian and Jack as the most responsible and the most involved).
  4. Scene IV: the Funeral
    1. Players can attend it.  It primarily consists of the descriptions above and musing on her life, plus additional clues.
      1. Jenny Cho can meet Jack and seem to remember him.
      2. Rajani can show up and the others can recognize her as a power, and the friend from the photo and thus question her
      3. Yukimura Yuji, likewise.
And that's it, I'm done!  Of course, in the months between now and actual go time, I have plenty of time to refine each and every point, but if my players demanded to play now, I could do it.  Which is probably not what I should be posting, since someone will waggle their brows. But the point is made: I could.

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