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!))

Advertisements

Who is the who?

What is a story (or an adventure) without characters?  In last weeks post we talked about writing up an adventure, and how the conflict is Man VS., But remember that MAN can be any protagonist, whether male, female, protoplasmic asexual, or super-intelligent shade of the color blue.  Depending on the game system and the setting, you may have all or none of these in your character group.  Characters, both PCs and NPCs, are a distinct and important part of making your adventure, and I will talk about each of them in this weeks post.

We will start with NPCs, or anyone not played by a player character (hence: Non-Player Character)  These range from major players, both heroes and villains, to walk ons.  They are a shorter discussion in general,but that does not mean they should be relegated to forgettable status..  The more important they are to your story-line, the more thought out they have to be.  While a chandler who sells the players waxed cotton line may need little more than a name (if even that), the big bad of the game needs quite a bit more!

Lets start small and go big.  A simple walk-on NPC needs little thought.In many cases, a name, a quirk and a voice are over thought.  Most NPCs of this type are stage dressing, shop keepers and villain fodder.  They represent Joe average.  They are OK in anything they need to do.  The more important an NPC, or the bigger role they play, they need more consideration. Hirelings of PCs should all have names, and at least one characteristic like  quick, Brave, giggles at inopportune times, cunning, untrustworthy, yawns all the time, etc…  For names, there are lots of resources, from a phone book (if you remember those) for a modern game, to various random name generators such as those found at Seventh Sanctum or Behind the Name.  At least keep a note card or page with a list of names, where you can write a couple of words about who they are, so if your players want to go back to them.  If they are important enough, make a note about how they talk.  If you are a 1st person player, imitate that when being the character.  If your more 3rd person, remind the players that this mousey little bartender talks like John Wayne!

  • Simply put: The more important the NPC, the more details you will need on them! Most major NPCS (based primarily on amount of “Screen time” they get) will need near complete character sheets with appropriate GM notes.

Before I even start on Player Characters, let me say this:  PCs should not be created in a vacuum!  PCs are informed as much by a setting as they are by other characters and/or story-line.

PCs

As the heart of your story, there are several things to consider when thinking about PCs.

  • What type of character(s) fits the story?
  • What character class, archetype or skill set is needed to meet the various challenges?
    • In general, the 5-man band trope will cover most requirements.  The RPG version is usually: Fighter (Heavy/Tank);Mage (Scientist); Rogue(mechanic,scrounge); Healer (medic);  Shooter (sniper, Archer)
  • What is the minimum and maximum number of players you need/are willing to run?
  • How can you hook your characters into the plot, or with each other?
    • The “you meet in a bar, and a mysterious stranger approaches” gives the player little connection to the plot or the other characters, but is a direct intro to the plot.
    • If each character has a personal stake in the outcome, then they want to get a good outcome.
    • If the players have at least some connection to the other players, then they will typical want to work together better.  This can range from family, to same school or hometown.  you can also connect each player with two other characters, and that way they web together.
  •  How tightly do the characters need to be tied to the story?  Drinking in a tavern and being hired by the mysterious patron is so easy to get them involved, but it does not really give them any reason beyond, something to do other than drink.  It is a great way to get a disparate group of unknown together.  On the other hand, the easiest way to get them all directly involved is having them all be part of an extended group that must resolve the issue.

You could provide pre-generated characters to your players.  This saves time during your first game, and allows you to control all the aspects of the characters.  This makes building hooks easy!  When building pre-gens, a couple of things to keep in mind:

PRE-GENS:

  • Most of the time it doesn’t matter if the character is male or female.  So if you name the character either give them a name that is gender neutral, or a male OR female name.  Often you can just leave the name to the player.
  • Make them at least somewhat interesting.  The background they have would not normally be “you work in a garage,”but should be they “worked in Uncle Vito’s garage since they could follow instructions, but when Uncle Vito was gunned down, you escaped by hiding behind a barrel of oil…”
  • Build hooks so they can relate to the story!  And conversely, make sure they have the skills to shine at least once during the game
    • This can be hard if you don’t know how many players to create for.  If you have two players and you had planned for 6, what do you do with the missing skills?
    • You may need to build yourself a table that shows you how to modify each of your characters if you don’t have enough, or make not of which skills are shy and consider how to get around them in the game

The middle ground of PC is character outlines.  Depending on your system, you may outline that you need at least a warrior, and a mage of a particular discipline; or you might say everybody needs at least one weapon skill at moderate proficiency, but you also need someone to be a divine worshiper of the god of black water.  With these basic outlines, you can get with your players and put all of the requirements on a white board or on note cards or whatever, and then draw straws to see who gets to choose what untill all of your requirements are taken care of, then let them build what ever else they want.

If you know your players, or are confident in your ability to guide players you don’t know, then you can go straight to character creation.  This gives your players the most freedom, but can put the greatest strain on your game, so lets look at some details:

Character Creation at the table

If you give your players complete freedom to create what they want (which is what I usually do), you have opened yourself up to the biggest headache.  You now need to make sure that the adventure fits the characters, and that you have appropriate hooks for them.

  • I recommend that you guide the character creation.  Kind of like the middle ground, you know what you need to have.  You know the setting and the scope.  (Creating characters for a single adventure may allow some rule breaking to fit what you need.  For a campaign…not really allowed!)
    • Keep in mind your story.  All of the next points assume you have a fairly solid grasp of the story you want to tell.  If you are telling a story about Victorian monster hunters, who incorporate part of the monster into themselves to make better hunters, you may not want a holier than thou brimstone preacher, but a preacher who fight the stain against God might work, but do you have the requirements of skills and abilities to meet the challenges of your story?
    • Talk with the characters about your setting.  Depending on the genre, you may even give them basics of the plot.  This might not work in a murder mystery, but in a” get the macguffin” (macguffin? you ask…the thing thqt MUST be gotten) dungeon crawl, you can probably tell them that.
    • In that discussion, they will need to know what type of characters you expect, and perhaps more importantly, what won’t fit.  In a witch hunting game, it is probably inappropriate for one of the characters to be a demon worshipper!
    • However, if they want to play that character, find out why.  Perhaps you can fit their desires into a character idea.  They want to play a demonologist to cast black magic?  What about White magic?  More limited perhaps,but the holy priest may fit in much better!
    • Feel free to have the players provide you hooks, but if your scope is a single game, help them change that hook to one that fits your setting.Let other players make suggestion about the character…get the ideas flowing.  If you need the characters to know each other, work out how.  do they each know all of the others, or is everyone connected to only one or two of the others?
    • Once concepts are made, work through character creation.  Try to make the build fit the idea, but make sure you get the skills covered that need to be.

Lets go to the example:

Continuing our example from before, lets touch on each of the ways you could create characters. We have come up with a story, so now consider the types of characters that you might need or want.  NPCs we need, are the spider alien,and its brood, the proconsul and a couple of servants.  That might do for a minimum.  The way the story is written, we may only need to completely stat out the big bad. The rest can get by with a few notes.but we may create some of the stats to deal with things we don’t expect.  Of course all of the bit players will need names, so I’ll have a random name generator (or a book on roman history) to create roman sounding names, with maybe space-opera monikers (Space runner, Star child, Voidmann).

If you are setting this game up for a convention, or just to try out a system or something, you may consider pre-gens.For the game you decide that all of your characters will have basic military training, so that defines part of their background.  Perhaps in your game, they have been together since they were out of the crèche as they were destined to form this cadre.  So now the players are connected.  Using that, the mission becomes important because one of their creche mothers has gone to this frontier planet, and they haven’t heard from her since she left.Like that, you have given them a reason to be together, to work together and a want to undertake the mission. (Maybe mother is in one of the villas that has been attacked…she is OK, but wants the master avenged).  You have soldiers; you also need perhaps a doctor, maybe with a xeno-disease specialty.  One of the characters is a research specialist.  You need a long-range fighter and a couple of close in fighters.  How about a diplomatic face type.  And then, as a final character, an insectoid non-citizen trying to earn its citizenship by serving the emperor.  Its motivation is different, but it adds a bit of party conflict, so you only make it available if all of the other characters are taken.  If you want, you can add character specific connections, but most single shot adventures don’t see a whole lot of use of them.  You can make it a point of play, exploiting it during one of your beats!  Otherwise, you are ready to play!

In the next situation, you may not know your players, but you are not limited by time, you may have a couple of session to cover the story, so you decide to have them create characters, but you will control the process.

You know you need all of your players to have Some fighting skills.  So, depending on your game system, you may require everyone to take a weapon proficiency, or x number of points in combat skills.  If your system is a pure class base, then this part of the decision is basically what sort of classes are needed.  As you can see, this is where a class based system could have significant advantages. Assuming you are playing a skill based or class/skill hybrid system you will need to be a bit more defined. You have access to notecards, so you use them. If you don’t know how many players, you may need to mark the characters.  something like all 1 star characters have to be taken before a two star character can be taken, and so on.  This ensures that the minimum classes/skills are covered.. If you are using a class hybrid system you may put out cards for just the classes , so everyone can pick that first.  Then, put out the skill cards with skill/talents/powers (whatever ) on them.These cards can include skill groups (skills for a thief, for instance) or maybe individual, allowing people to specialize as they see fit.  Once skills and classes are distributed, you might talk about hooks, or you can lay them out for selection as well.  If you lay them out, it might be best to be a little vague so character secrets are not common knowledge.  If you are going to leave the players to work out the character hooks, you might consider the next iteration instead!

Lets now assume you are going to be playing with your usual group of players.  You know the kind of things they play, but maybe this setting will get them to shake it up a bit.  So, you get snax and start talking about characters for the new game.  Everybody agreed to the setting, so you just need to tell them a bit about your story plan.  Everybody is happy with what you need.  So they can dive into character making right?  Yes, but…THey can make their character and then work with you about fitting them into the group, but if everybody talks through the types of character ideas they have, you can guide them in their choices, and other players may have some influence to make better characters!  Cool, eh?  OK…your group is talking about characters, and one of the players really wants to play a dwarven priestess to the God of the Axe.  You explain that this is not really a fantasy game, but they would really like to do this…now what?

Like so many other things at the game table – talk it out!  Maybe after finding out why she wants to play that, you agree that it could be a fun concept, but it doesn’t fit.  But (Later we will talk about the Yes, But.. .and No, and… concepts) how about she is a non-citizen from a high Gee Ice world called Graham Holt.  So, she is short, and hairy, like a dwarf, and she actually has psionic powers that her people have attributed to divine intervention.  You hadn’t planned on any kind of magic, but this minor power might fit well.  So, she gets to play her Dwarven priestess, that is on this operation to work toward her citizenship in the Empire.  Character motivation! She may not be connected to the other players directly…or, maybe she has been assigned to their cohort for a while!  Maybe even the slave of one of the other characters!

Once created, then you need to wrap it up with tie ins.  Once each of your characters is a closely connect with each other and the story that you are comfortable with, you are off to the races! (Not breeds of people, but competitions of speed…but actually mean you are ready to play!)  Well…almost.  Next week, I will discuss setting up for your game.

Let me know if this is of help!