Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Organic Gaming: Thoughts and Refinements

Because Justin Aquino seems determined to continue to drive my blog with his interesting posts, I find myself compelled once again to respond to an idea he's put forward.  Here, he's talking about Organic Gaming, an interesting idea that sounds a lot like sandboxing to me, and I thought I'd share my own thoughts and offer some refinements on his idea.

Finished reading yet?  I'll wait a moment.  Done now?  Ok.

First, naturally, my thoughts turned towards Metzgerburg, my setting for Slaughter City (City details here, mortals here, ghouls here, vampires here), which I think is pretty close to what Justin is talking about.  Building Metzgerburg taught me some things that Justin (and others) might find useful.  In the very least, you can use my material as inspiration for your own.

"This game takes a lot of prep."

Yes it does.  I spend two or three months putting together Metzgerburg and I only got three sessions out of it (less because I did something wrong and more because my group self-destructed.  It was scheduling conflicts and personal issues, rather than a lack of interest in the setting or the game, that sunk it), but I still found the design fairly enlightening.

My concern, as I read Justin's post, is that he's putting too much work in the wrong places, or for the wrong reasons.  You can see elsewhere on his blog that he's looking for a gaming personal assistant because the work-load of his games is so heavy (in addition to his work).  However, the point of the prep-work is to save you time.

Allow me to explain: The hardest part of running a game, in my experience, is the pre-session crunch (and getting the session started, but more on that later).  Suddenly, the next session looms large, it's coming tomorrow (or today!) and you need to get the story done. In a normal gaming-situation, this involves cramming plans together for four hours or so, asking your players for more time and generally panicking.  In a sandbox environment, it consists of looking at your notes, looking at what the players had done previously, and then just adding a couple of ideas on top of that, and showing up.  The game's inertia does the rest for you.

As an example: By the third session, the bloodthirsty nosferatu PC had managed to get his murderous mitts on Danny Devlin and killed him.  Given that Danny Devlin was intended as one of my major villains, this was potentially problematic under a more mainstream gaming model, but I actually found, after a moment of thinking, that I didn't have a problem at all, and if you peruse the notes, you'll see why (dramatic pause...).  You see, Angus Devlin has been angling to take over the family business for quite some time now (and he's even more ruthless and better organized), and Jack Devlin, the cop, would want to know who killed his uncle and probably won't accept the pat story that Angus is going to weave for him, which will put Jack in the sights of both Angus and the vampires, much to another PC's consternation.  So all our muderour nosferatu really managed to do was make the Irish Mafia leaner and meaner and hand more drama to the group.

This sort of thing happens all the time in mature, well-established games (which is why a game that's been running for a year is more popular than a game that's been running for only a few sessions).  What you're trying to do with all that prep-work is create that sense of maturity as quickly as possible, so that your players have a sense of stepping into a mature, complete game world as quickly as possible.

What you're not trying to do is give yourself even more work.  The ultimate purpose of all those notes is to provide on the spot inspiration. Justin talks about managing all the NPCs all the time.  The problem with that approach, as realistic as it is, is that a single person doesn't have that kind of processing power and the players won't appreciate that level of realism anyway (and I'll get into why in a bit).  I'm not saying that you can't track what the NPCs are doing and what they want, but you do it in very broad strokes, and you only go into a great deal of detail when the game demands it.  Our nosferatu murdered Danny Devlin, so suddenly lots of drama erupts in the Devlin family, in the criminal world and among the police, but David Wang does not find out that Mei Zhi is stepping out on him and moonlighting as a prostitute.  That's not important and that's not where the story is going.  If we did that outside of the PCs view, we've removed some of the inherent drama in the game.  We can create more drama, add more hooks as time goes on, but again, the purpose of this is to save work, not create more.

What you'll want to do is create hooks within hooks within hooks.  Every NPC has an interesting hook that might tangle a player in some local drama.  But every NPC hooks into other NPCs, so the deeper you mess with one NPC, the more you get tangled in the lives of other NPCs.  It's like a grand maze of human emotion and relationships.  But you don't trigger drama when players aren't looking.  At most, I'd suggest that once every few months (say after 3-6 sessions) you do a quick update-sweep over your characters, especially the ones who haven't changed, and adjust them to keep them up to date, or possibly improve them just in case they come up.  Other than that: Don't track people that don't come up.

"...characters need an in-game motivation for their character (not a meta-game like xp, cp, levels etc...)..."

That's not really the point of those meta-game-like motivations.  What you're trying to do here is not "punish players for bad roleplaying, reward them for good," but rather you're trying to simulate the inherent irrationality of the human mind and the capriciousness of fate.  In short, you're giving people choices.

Let me give you an example: A GM sits at his desk staring at his computer.  His session is tomorrow.  He needs to plan.  But he's just received a free copy of Skyrim!  He wants to play it.  What should he do?  The obvious answer is: Work on his session.  In the long run, that's better for him, and Skyrim will wait.  But we know, in reality, that it's going to require considerable strength of will to actually do that.  In real life, the character has a hard choice, and we must do our best to simulate that difficult choice for the player.

In Metzgerburg, Granya Weschler was a good representation of a meta-game element that, in fact, served as an in-character motivation.  First, allow me to explain something that isn't clear in these notes: In my vampire games, I have a house rule to simulate the fact that vampires gain more strength from drinking from more potent vessels, and to also simulate the pickiness some vampires have: you gain "blood experience" (which can only be used to improve Disciplines and Blood Potency) for drinking from particularly savory vessels.  Thus, a virgin woman of high breeding is generally more desired among vampires than some drunk lout beggar in an alley.  Granya, due to her suicide-girl nature and her ghostly heritage, granted the maximum "blood experience" possible for drinking from her.  One of the players discovered this and nearly frenzied on her.  He was also in love with her.  Naturally, he grew possessive of her, both because he loved her and because he wanted her.  Because of all that blood XP, because she was his meal-ticket to power, he intuitively grasped why a vampire might grow territorial about a mortal, and began to panic when his sire began to show interest in her as well.

Arguably, with a really good role-player, you could just tell this all this and they'll play their character this way, but a more visceral reward drives the point home.  Thus, you use meta-game concepts not as "punishment and reward" but as a way of aligning player motivation with character motivation.  Things like "Well, you can violate your Code of Honor, that's ok, but you'll lose XP if you do," or "If you punch that guy in the face, I'll give you a Willpower point due to your Wrath vice."  Then the PC is given a choice: What matters more to him?  What does he need?  Is he willing to swim against the stream of his own nature, or will he succumb to his baser (or habitual) nature?  Then it becomes a choice, an interesting choice, and that improves the game.

"A special trait of the organic game is that: "The world does not revolve around you", in fact it doesn't revolve around anyone."

 I talked about this a little above when I discussed prep-work and not tracking every NPC all the time: the story does, in fact, revolve around the PCs.

Now, let's take a quick step back.  Note that Justin does not use that phrasing.  He never said "the story does not revolve around you," just that the world does not.  This was, in fact, a key point of Slaughter City: There was the world of vampires, which rather revolved around the PCs, and the mortal world, which totally did not.  I explicitly set out to give the vampires the impression that the daylight world had dramatic things happening when they weren't around.  Boyfriend and girlfriend would break up while the vampires slept.  Cute mechanic girls would be kidnapped during the day while the vampires could do nothing about it.  Votes were tallied and politicians elected during the day.  Vampires would sleep, wake, and find the world changed with them unable to do anything about it.  The mortal world moved on.  I even went so far as to use different sorts of descriptive elements when among mortals than when among vampires, to give the impression that players were walking from one world to another.

But the game itself must center on the players.  Ultimately, because of your human limitations, you're weaving an illusion.  Since you can't track everything, you'll want to track the things the players interact with the most (or you'll go crazy).  It's a bit like quantum uncertainty: When the players are looking at a part of your world, you bring it into sharp focus.  When the players aren't looking at a part of the world, it's fuzzy, uncertain and hand-waved.

But more importantly, the players just don't give a shit about stuff that doesn't interest with them (I mean, it's tautalogical).  The more attention you focus on things the players don't care about, the less attention you're focusing on things that they do care about.  And since your world must be large to accomodate all this sandboxing, there's always far more stuff the players aren't interested in than what they are interested in.  A practice where everything is given equal attention means that you're spending more of your time dealing with things the players don't enjoy than the things they do enjoy.

The nature of a sandbox is in its possibilities.  We create all this material because we don't know where the players will go, and to accomodate where they might want to go.  This remains as true ten sessions in as it did in the first session, thus it is worth your while to pay SOME attention to the other elements.  In Slaughter City, nobody did shit with the Clarks, but that doesn't mean they never would.  Thus it's worth my time to keep them up to date and watch over them, but it would be a waste of my time to give them as much attention as I was giving the Devlins or to Granya.

Finally, a world that doesn't give a shit about the PCs sounds a little too much like the real world, and we game to get away from the real world, not to recreate it in miniature.  Oh, sure, we value realism, but we value drama and verisimilitude more.  Thus, ultimately, you'll want to track things not with an eye towards how it would really go, but towards an eye on how it will impact the players.  You can say "It doesn't revolve around the players" as much as you want, but ultimately, it should.

Let me go back to Jack Devlin: His uncle has just been killed.  The DA declares it a robbery gone horribly wrong, has some guy arrested as a fall guy, the pieces don't all fit, but the case is closed.  Jack attends the funeral and then he... what?  Realistically, he should simply appreciate the fact that the world is a safer place.  Realistically, people overlook crimes all the time.  Realistically, he has his own career to worry about, plus a budding relationship with Granya.  He could just shrug his shoulders and move on.  But he could obsess on it.  The missing pieces to the puzzle could really bother him.  His sense of family could push him to investigate what's really going on, potentially alienating Granya and upsetting her greatly, and bringing him closer, inch by inch, to the reality of vampires.  Both are potentially realistic, but which impacts the players more?  The latter.  So we choose that.

"The purpose behind Organic Games is that there is no railroading"

This is a mistake.  Oh, well, let's start with a good definition first: If we use "railroading" to mean "You vill follow my story, unt you vill like it!" then no, it's not a mistake to argue against railroading, but this sort of railroading is so despised that it's practically a strawman.  If we instead use "railroading" to mean GM-driven plot, rather than PC-driven plot (as in "Then this happens to you, then this,"), then I have to disagree.  There should be railroading, at least some.

See, players are idiots.  GMs are idiots too, but they do their homework. They've got gobs of notes, they know the setting and they take the time to work up material hours in advance of the session.  Players don't.  They usually couldn't, even if they wanted to, and generally they see it as a form of entertainment.  Frankly, you're lucky that they remember their character sheet and dice, and you're even luckier if you can extract a background from them.

The greatest mistake I constantly see sandboxers make is the "So what do you do?" line.  So you're in Metzgerburg.  What do you do?

"I dunno," replies the PC, "What can I do?"

"Anything you want!" says the GM, terribly excited, looking at all the potential in his story.

"Uh.... I watch TV?"

And then the game begins to go downhill from there.

But there's a solution to this. Think back on most of the successful sandboxing computer games you've seen, like GTA or the Elder Scrolls.  They give you a whole world to play with, but they give you an introduction to the world first.  You're on rails at the start, looking around, seeing what the GM has laid out for you, getting an idea of the world.  In Slaughter City, the players had to fight Belial's Brood and bring a gift of a handsome young vessel to the Prince.  These two things dragged the characters along for a session or two, but as the players became more and more familiar with the world, they had more and more things they wanted to do, and at this point, the sandbox kicks in.  Then you sit back and let them do what they want to do.

"So, you just finished fighting the monster and rescuing the cute mechanic girl from its evil clutches.  Now you need to..."

"Oh, I was hoping to revisit that one guy we met the other day."

"...Oh really?  Ok then."


"Sure!  So, how do you want to do this?  Just walk up to his door and knock?"

"Well, actually I had this idea..."

And then we're off!  The idea of the "rails" is something I call sparking: like striking flint and iron over tinder, you're working again and again to light the fire of your player's imaginations. Once you've got it lit, you still need to toss elements onto the fire every once in awhile to keep it going, but once they're off, you can sit back and enjoy the ride.  However, getting their imagination lit in the first place is a lot of work, and that starts with a more traditional "mission-oriented" style of play.  Once the players begin to buck the rails... you let them because your rails accomplished all they needed to, and you can  let them rust.

"I'm pro-making mistakes. My favorite thing about RPGs is that I allowed to make mistakes without the severe consequences of the real world. In a Table-Top-RPG I get to do it in a fabulous, catastrophic, tragic, poignant and sometimes gonzo way."

Yes.  The advantage of a sandbox game is that it's fault-tolerant.  If the players murder your villain, well, you weren't too invested in that storyline anyway and even if you are, you have other characters that can take his place.  Justin isn't wrong, it's just that his idea could use some refinement.

  • Sandboxing is great for all the reasons Justin outlines.
  • You can and should still use scripts to get the players up and running.  After that, let them play until they run out of ideas, then go back to scripts if necessary.
  • Use methods that save you work, not create more.  Don't track anything unnecessary.
  • The world may not revolve around the players, but the story does.
  • Use meta-game traits to create difficult choices, not punish or reward role-playing.

Monday, January 2, 2012

My GM Merit Badges

Found a neat idea here, and I thought I'd share my own philosophy here.

My games have combat, and I reward clever play whenever I can, and I will attempt to use clever tactics against you as well.

Part of the above is a love of player wit over character capability.  I do think character stats matter, but more as a tool for the player than as an iron writ about how someone should play.

My game, my rules.  It's very important, for the above, that the rules remain consistent, but in the heat of the moment, I'll improvise before I look something up in the book.

Ultimately, I'm trying to create an interesting story.  I feel the tactics and the player-actions will feed into that to create something special, but they are secondary to this concern (hence why some dice fudging does happen).

Part and parcel of writing that interesting story is feeling larger than life.  After all, we RP to escape, right?  I do love some deep simulationism, but I'd rather run a game about epic romances and tragic failures than the banality of evil (though that can have its appeal at times).

Because really, at the end of the day, this is about you.  It's about an amazing exploration of people, and how they interact with one another, how they love and how they die.  It's not enough to fight, you need a reason to fight, and that means relationships, and relationships mean drama.

But I like really dark themes, often very disempowering themes.  I can enjoy the "walking barefoot over broken glass" phase a little too much.  I tame it as best as I can, but it'll leak out eventually.  You can't really get the most out of my games if you're easily bothered by certain themes.
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