This was originally published on Gametime: an outpost for NZ RPG thought.
When the Forge spawned the “Indie Game Revolution”, I was very sceptical. I took my line pretty far – I called out steve_hix over his award of “Best GM” at KapCon for his break-out Indie game, “The Lucky Joneses”, a game about dysfunctional families that was finally released last year as Bad Family. I argued that the GM in Indie games had a much lower burden to carry than the traditional GM because the onus is on the players to make the bulk of the fun. Eventually, Dale found the perfect retort to that argument in his concept of “Player Activation”, a core principal of his break-through Horror game, EPOCH. The core argument: causing players to make their own fun is harder than it looks. The concept of player empowerment, rather than GM storytelling, has gained an astonishing currency over the past 5 years, and everyone wants to get on board, and it’s creating some interesting tensions in the way that games and scenarios are constructed – in some ways I think it’s created an ideological tangle that I’d like to pull apart, at least a little.
I started out playing AD&D 1st Edition. I started RPGing just after 2nd Edition came out, but as kids we couldn’t afford the current edition. I picked up my PHb at liquidation prices, and one of my regular players had parents who’d given up playing a few years before we began and had a stockpile of AD&D 1st Edition stuff. We spent a happy few years cutting our way through increasingly elaborate, but always implausible, dungeon complexes. The first game I ran that included anything I’d now recognise as roleplaying was Doom of Daggerdale, and it was a revelation. I mean that fairly literally, because the game is about a small town whose tangled and dark underbelly is exposed by the characters. There’s a quite complex back-story about wizards who did bad things, and the people they loved, and betrayal and corruption. It made by 12 year old head absolutely spin. What strikes me about it now is that you don’t even need the player characters for that story to be compelling. The player characters are disconnected from the action – they are disinterested parties, cutting through the tangle for profit. For the scenario to work, it requires pro-active player characters, whose pro-activity doesn’t generate a story about themselves. It has taken the first step to being “player-facing” without being about the player characters.
The game had to be structured that way because there was no way of predicting what characters would encounter the game. I don’t think anyone would have been able to write or sell an AD&D 2nd Ed scenario whose PC requirements were a group of human adventurers from a small town with an uncle who was a corrupt constable etc etc. What I learned to do, as I think almost everyone did, was to build up a stockpile of D&D adventures out of Dungeon Magazines, and file off the serial numbers as best we could to re-skin the scenarios for our specific groups. NPCs you’d used in previous games replaced similar characters in the present scenario. Doing that creates a sense of continuity where one doesn’t exist naturally.
I think this is still the default design philosophy of most RPG scenarios. I picked up Night’s Black Agents recently, and I absolutely love it – for me, it’s the best implementation of GUMSHOE so far, and it does everything I could hope for in a Spy game. One of the big selling points of GUMSHOE is, and always has been, it’s core idea that games shouldn’t bog down in the investigative phase – clues are given out for free. This has often been expressed in terms of ensuring that the players can drive the action, because they’re not waiting around for information. The GM advice in NBA calls for the GM to saturate the players with information to force them to decide what to do. Fear Itself is even more upfront about the centrality of the player characters as protagonists. Included in the core book is a starter scenario, “(S)Entries” to get you going – but the characters enter the scenario in the classic role of adventurers dating back to the dawn of our hobby, as contractors coming in to explore the stories of non-player characters. It’s a little disappointing, because I think the bulk of the GM and story advice in the book is aimed at delivering specific stories about specific characters, and it’s almost all good advice. It’s like a footballer tripping themselves up while doing their touchdown dance. To me, that just proves how insidious and pervasive the old story design paradigms are. The whole design philosophy of the system has been re-oriented around empowering and enabling the player characters, but when the rubber hits the road, the provided sample scenario still has the same core design as adversarial D&D’s Doom of Daggerdale: For the scenario to work, it requires pro-active player characters, whose pro-activity doesn’t generate a story about themselves. It has taken the penultimate step toward being “player-facing” without being about the player characters.
In EPOCH, I think this manifests itself in an emergent tension between the characters’ stories as told through flashbacks and the Horror Track. I ran Road Trip yesterday for a group of neophyte gamers, and they grasped the core elements of the horror mechanics within a few minutes. They milked their injuries for dramatic potential, some of them used their flashbacks to evoke a sense of character, they got the drama of the hero/zero decision. At the end of the scenario, they’d gotten a “Hollow Victory”, which is the basic result for a group that engages with the premise rather than ignoring it. To get a “Total Victory”, they needed to investigate the back-story of a feud between two biker gangs and investigate the history of one faction’s grizzly mascot: a mummified human corpse. The scenario background is all very interesting and evocative and all those good things but it’s completely irrelevant to the player characters. In logistical terms, they need to set aside the time they’re spending on their domestic family drama to explore someone else’s.
Solving this problem isn’t easy for the scenario designer, especially the EPOCH scenario designer where the possibilities for player character configurations are virtually unlimited, or for the contractor-style setup, where the premise of the game is that some disinterested contractors are going to come in and solve the problems for profit. I’ve addressed the problem in only two of my games, Succession</i> and the forthcoming Death on the Streets, and then only by placing some pretty severe restrictions on the kinds of characters that can experience the scenario while simultaneously expecting the players to buy into the scenario premise.
There are is a simple thought experiment that the scenario designer can use to evaluate whether their scenario is really player-facing: what happens in the scenario if no player characters arrive on the scene? We’re used to thinking about scenarios by setting up a story trajectory that the player characters disrupt. For example in Spirit of the Tentacle, if the player characters don’t arrive, the cultists summon a tentacled monster who destroys New York. While running the game, the villains’ timetable grinds relentlessly on. What that means is that in effect, the player characters are anti-protagonists. They’re not trying to achieve anything, they’re trying to just maintain the status quo (of a tentacled monster not destroying NYC). In contrast, in The Hand That Feeds, if the player characters never arrive in town, nothing happens: the situation remains as it is. In both, the characters are explicitly contractors, but in the Hand that Feeds, they characters are creating the story, which is inherently more empowering. If you can’t even imagine your scenario without the player characters, then I think odds are good your scenario really has player-character protagonists driving the story.
Another technique is to think about how specific the constraints on the player characters are. Again, I think we’re used to this kind of approach indicating robust design. Doom of Daggerdale suits almost any conceivable group of characters, and hence represents robust design. But the trade-off should be obvious: if the supposed heroes of the story are completely interchangeable, are they really the story’s heroes? Specificity creates logistical problems for short-run games. I’m sure none of us wants to go back to the days when sitting down for a one-shot scenario required reading 10 pages of world exposition, character background and relationships, and a character sheet requiring a PhD to interpret. The 3 inspirational cards of EPOCH and narrative authority has solved a lot of ergonomic problems with short-run games!
There is no perfect game. There are always trade-offs in designing scenarios. I just hope via this post that one of the central design features in most commercial RPG scenarios is now at least a little clearer, and if you design a scenario with a strong NPC storyline, it’s as a conscious design decision.