NOT the Big Easy!

Conflict creates drama.  Drama comes from the uncertainty of an outcome.  We, as role players, use drama , hence conflict, to create adventures.  In this post, I am going to discuss a notable difference in the way I play epic and episodic.  What you and your table expect from a game is often defined by how much and what type of drama you are looking for.

Before getting into anything else, lets talk drama and conflict.  Conflict occurs in game when two or more people, in this case PCs and NPCs, desire a specific outcome and not all parties want or expect the same, or even similar outcomes.  Drama is created when an outcome of an event is uncertain.  Therefore, when Player Characters are at odds with Non-player Character, other PCs, or even the environment, we engage the game mechanics to determine the outcome of the event.  The most obvious is out-right combat.  This is the sort of conflict that most people think of first when thinking of RPG conflict.  It is also the most detailed system in almost all RPG mechanics.  But, Lets say a PC needs to get documents out of the safe of an NPC.  The NPC is personally unreachable or undefeatable by said PC.  We now have a conflict, that can’t be directly solved with combat.  While it is possible that the PC may hire a group of mercenaries/thugs/bravos/etc to beat the combo, or even the actual document from this NPC, that combat is probably “off screen,” and said PC may or may not have solved the problem, but will not know until the hirelings report back.  So the drama here is not the combat, but the outcome which is unknown for a period of time.  But what if the PC wants to break into the place where the safe is, crack the safe and thereby obtain the document.  Here, the conflict is with the environment; how obvious does the PC want to be?  How tough is the safe, either physically or the combination?  The drama here comes from the stealth of the PC, the chance of getting caught, what do they know about the safe, can they successfully crack the safe either by manipulation or brute force?  Can they get away without being tied to the act, or does it matter?  Game mechanics here are skill resolution types.  While some games make any failed roll the only outcome, others allow re-attempts, either with penalties to skill or time.  (I usually allow re-rolls, with the penalty increasing each time.  To me this reflects that you have already worked to the best of your skill, and are now hoping for a bit of luck, that becomes more frustrating the more times it is tried.)  Finally, what if they want to con, or sweet talk the NPC out of the documents?  Now we face a social conflict.  Some games, particularly the more modern of them, have a social mechanic that can make the give and take of wordplay as exciting as the cut and thrust of sword and axe.   All of these are ways to resolve conflict, and the drama comes from not knowing the outcome.  Some systems may resolve some or all of these on a simple dice roll, while others may take a great deal of real time to resolve.

Having defined conflict and drama, let me talk about Epic vs Episodic (and my own Epic-sodic).  In general, Episodic games are divided into scenes, or acts that each have a major conflict that needs resolved.  Once the conflict for that part of the arc is dealt with, often the minutia of getting to the next conflict, such as travel, or information gathering (Which can be a conflict on its own), or even simple resupply is pretty much handled by a few moments of discussion and hand -waving.

For Instance: “OK.  You have beaten these henchmen and discovered where the lair is.  As you don’t want to give Dr. Q any warning, you head pretty much directly to the lair.  Since you need to go across town, you can run a few simple errands.  Does anybody need to buy anything or restock?  OK.   Now, you are arriving at the lair of the Villainous Dr. Q…”

In Epic games, I often play out even the non-dramatic events, such as day to day life.  The idea here is that the player , and therefore the character, becomes familiar with the mundane life as well as the exciting parts.  While this makes story arcs last much longer, it does tend to make it easier for the players and their characters to relate to the disruption caused by the adventures, and/or care more for the people placed in harms way.  This is where i use the the idea of “Random Encounters” or  “Wandering Monsters.”  It is not just to add conflict where none needs to be, but to make it seem like everyday life and travel could be interrupted by these horrible dangers at any time.  The attack by orcs may not be related to the rampaging ogres that you are tracking…but perhaps it is?!?!?!  In Epic style like this, the story arc is not the only thing.  The idea is to highlight the dramatic by contrasting it to the more mundane.

In my Epic-sodic, most dangerous conflict, that could kill a PC or leave them in a significantly worse way, are part of the story arcs.  Random combat encounters almost never occur.  If they do, they are they to advance the plot, usually by providing a clue.  This allows a bit of the mundane to be contrasted well with the primary dramatic, story advancing, scenes.

Conflict is not the only way to introduce drama, but it is often the easiest.  Other parts of a game can be presented dramatically as well.  For instance, resource management can provide a dramatic element; Will i have enough  bullets to deal with these zombies? What about the very core of the game; You are down to the last three cans of food, one of which has lost its paper wrapper, and has a slight bulge in it’s side.  Sounds like time for some foraging!  And in a game with a lot of good role play, drama can come just from character or NPC interaction scenes.

(What about the dreaded “Notice/Search/Perception/Awareness check?”  (Although, this is the core of an upcoming post) This can lead to drama.  What did I see…or worse…What did I FAIL to see?  This can definitely lead to a dramatic moment if you believe that you may have missed a poison trap and your character is about to die!  But what if it was to notice the man in the rumpled coat?  Is he there because you should take note of him?  Have you seen him before?  Or is he there just for game color?  This bit of drama can be fun, but note that this is fun for the PLAYER, not necessarily the CHARACTER.  The character doesn’t know they just failed a perception check.  But what if they are searching for a clue in a murder case?  If they fail the roll, does the killer get away, game over…)

When considering drama in your game, consider conflict in all of its many guises.  Consider the tone of your game. Consider what your players like and how your table plays.  Drama does not always equal Conflict.  Conflict does not always mean Hack and Slash.  But, conflict is dramatic!  Be aware of the impact it has on your game, and where you are going, and look at drama as a something to happen at every game, even if no one slaps leather!

((Sorry for the long delay…Again, my hope is to have one about every month!  Fingers crossed!))

Crossing Boundries

What are you willing to accept at your table?

This is a post about players at your table.  Interesting that I just read this while thinking of this topic.  Not because I agree with everything he puts forth, but because it is about the “Contract” you have between you and your players.  Some of the points he raised are worth consideration, but I am not going to debate the points in this post.  Although I recommend you read through it I am more interested in what sort of players and what sort of characters you are willing to game with.  I am going to start with these assumptions:

1. Both you and your players are at the table for fun.

2. You have some option as to who plays, even if that is to go without game.

3. You and your players can have a discussion without someone actually getting dead!

We have touched on some of the parts of this Gaming Contract, but here I am talking about the hard edges of that contract.  As a ref, you need to know what you are comfortable dealing with in your game, and you need a good understanding of what your players will and will not stand for.  One of the first stumbling blocks, in my experience is cross sexing.  What is that?  Allowing players to play characters that are opposite to their sex.My Lady Wife is fairly adamant against this, so when she is playing, it is easy to “Just say no.”  As a Ref, however, I have no problem with this.  I let players play sexless robots, or demons, or infinitely long-lived elves.  I may not think they play them very well, because my belief and/or understanding of these various races is different from theirs.  What about female Dwarves?  Most “sources” that I know do not even address that dwarves have females.  (What, are they asexual? Hermaphroditic? are they literally born from stone?)  Most games however, will allow a female to play a dwarf and a female one at that.  Her biggest argument against it, aside from the fact that she doesn’t believe men can play very convincing females, is that it is a significant hurdle to the suspension of her disbelief…It’s hard enough to remember that the 6’4″ 280# gamer guy is playing an 18″ tall fairy type character, not alone that he now has tits.  (And, strongly in her favor, most guys end up playing lesbian females…partly out of fantasy fulfillment, but also because most of them have a hard time thinking of another male as tap-able!)  Aside from all of this, it is something you need to decide.  If a player is paying an Ice golem, and decides that he wants to learn fire magics, because its cool, will you allow it?  Do you step in and say “Nope, you can’t play your lifelong dream of playing a fire breathing Ice Golem, because that just doesn’t happen in my word!”  Ignore it, and just let it happen?  Maybe let him do it with significant penalties..Maybe an extreme example, but if a 4’6″ petite female wants to play a male Ogre enforcer,because the Ogres of the Pit do not allow females, do you let her, even if she has no idea of how to play a male, or a not overly bright ogre or how to go about “Enforcing.”

OK…talked about cross sexing, and playing racial characteristics.  What about how dark your campaign will/can become?  Will you accept characters who become drug dealers or pimps?  Many people seem willing to let a character torture, flay or kill NPC enemies, but often tend to shy away from letting them pimp out an NPC.  What about rape?  Very touchy subjects, and they should be clearly understood what will be tolerated in your game group.  What if one of your players is a victim of rape?  Not something they might want to talk about, but if you don’t understand that it is beyond the scope of that players contract, are you willing to accept the possible harm you have brought to your table?  I tend to keep my table about R rated.  Sex happens, but discreetly off-screen, or lightly brushed in a soft-core soft focus way.  Usually rape is acceptable subject matter, but whether players are involved or not, that goes Off-screen.  Torture…another very dark subject that you may or may not want to allow.  In general, I don’t encourage player to come up with inventive new tortures, and set the results basically as a die roll, keeping in the  rule structure.  By the same token a player is a captive, the methods used for information gathering or punishment, or whatever, are broad stroked…”You are tortured for several hours a day…roll me 3 will/fortitude/resistance/fatigue checks”  On the same area, but not as dark…what about sex?  Between characters?

And to the complete other side of the spectrum, how much fucking off will you tolerate?  During a Hell Game (A game that is more social than story telling, little to no attachment to the characters), we can go a whole session, and never even pull out characters.  But, during serious game, I am much more restrictive, and have been known to continue narrating even though other players are chatting off topic, throwing pepperoni slices at each other, or throwing up in the corner.  (Well, I suppose that depends on why they are throwing up…)  Then when I have them roll initiative  they are more than a bit surprised, or if I tell them they just took a serious hit and they are only standing on their feet out of sheer surprise…wow!  Gets their attention!  And usually significantly pissed off players!

The gaming contract can be as explicit or implicit as everyone is comfortable with.  Remember the voice of game.  Sometimes, the contract may specify how to handle these things.  Sometimes, it can be very simple: “The game table is Rated R.”  But, when it looks like a sensitive issue is coming up, it may be time to better define part of it.  Yes, sometimes it may be a bit of a spoiler, but most of the time, these issues are fairly obvious, so talk to the players before you go gallumphing over the Rose, ignoring her thorns!