Sunday, July 29, 2007

Fellowship of the Lost

Below is a post I made to the story-games.com forum. I am reposting it here, because the Fellowship post (at the end) was kind of juicy.

Let me use three examples of TYPES of games I run (as I try not to use the same methods over and over) and maybe that'll frame the conversation a little differently.

Let's say I'm running Warhammer Fantasy (or something similar). The PCs start as complete neophytes. This is purposeful. WHFRP's entire game world is built on this model. Life is cheap. Social darwinsim. All that. Eventually the PCs start caring about the world around them and grow in power so they can affect the world around them. This isn't for everyone, I recognize.

Now. At the end of any of my game sessions, there should be numerous dangling plot-threads, NPCs that have gotten away, and plenty of questions that the PCs want answered. This is how i run. It's not how everyone runs the game. The campaign ends when I see it's time to end it, and I start building momentum for the finale. The game always end with at least two villains to thwart and not all of them within arm's reach (no time to kill everything). Its very possible the characters can die trying to "win." It is very likely, they will be affected by the story.

Now. Let's say I'm running an Indie RPG. Dogs is a good example. Because I really like it and I have enough command of the rules to tinker.

I love to tinker.

In dogs, the PCs make their characters ahead of time, from home, and we roleplay the first few days of their campaign lives through e-mails and when they finally meet, they have more command of their character's voice. Unless your gaming with actors, most people (I've found) need a few hours to really find their voice. The PCs meet, through the church/mission/temple and are told... spread god's word. They aren't told how. They aren't told where. And they aren't railroaded or shoehorned. Hell, if I do my job right, I've made 10 towns for them to visit and I let them choose one. But I probably wouldn't do that much prep-work.

Seeing what the PCs are doing, I'm likely to throw subplots at them, tailored to their characters. I'm likely to distract their "plans" with minor moral inconveniences (timmy fell in a well? and he's a sodomite?). I'm likely to expose them to events outside the "walls" of their world. I'm likely to drop them on the edge of a civil war or some large scale event that's about to affect their world in meaningful ways.

And with the right players, I'm likely to do nothing and just sit back and watch them take over.

Because I believe (and this is just my POV) that dogs cannot be campaigned forever, at a certain point I need to start wrapping it up, which means ratcheting the tension and abbreviating the amount of things they can do with their time. This is all administrative folderol. There's no way to write rules for it. You just have to sense what your players can handle and what they need.

Now. Let's say I'm running Vampire (or any city-oriented game). My city games are massive relationship mapping undertakings (not that I ever used this term until I met Josh). It's sort of like playing a tabletop version of Elder Scrolls (or whatever that video game was called). But instead of worrying about hit points and skills, you are concerned about standing and ambition. Other characters in the world are moving just as fast as you are. They are not just sitting in a night club somewhere waiting for the stereotypical meeting with the heroes while strippers giggle behind them in some Michael Bay-esque self-efacing charade. Instead, the NPCs are out collecting friends, buying stolen weapons, importing drugs, stealing candy from babies, and essentially upsetting the balance of the game's ecosystem. If the PCs sit back and do nothing, the world is still going to change. If the PCs get involved, the world is going to change more.

Short of ziplocking me right into a game box, though, I've yet to find a way to do this... but I'm working on it. COIL will be my first attempt at multi-character storytelling and city-wide roleplaying.

With the exception of Dogs, my games do not have a set "plot." I have world laws that I must adhere to (so I can't cheat anyone) and a paper-mache story framework that I can tear apart and mold into something else at a moment's notice, but I rarely have a plot the first night we game. In other words, imagine you wake up one morning and you don't want to go to work... what do you do instead? The game is a blank canvas. Once the PCs begin to poke and probe the game world do I get a sense of what they really want to do and how I want to pace the game.

And even with dogs, I don't force-feed them anything. But I build a settlement for them to explore.

These styles, do not play well in 4 hours. A lot is lost when you only have enough time to reveal characters, unearth the plot, uncover one or two complications, and footrace your way to finale.

That's my impression anyway.

Although, I hear the 8-hour Mountain Witch games at the local con are great, however. Because they have more "stages."

And of course, combine all of this with... I write RPG material (both mainstream and smallpress), fiction, essays, poetry, comic book scripts, movie reviews, and game convention adventures... all to completely different audiences... you can understand why I would ask these questions.

Finally, to address your comments about the Fellowship. This game isn't about winning and beating Nezzeroth. In a lot of ways, they can't fully win. But that's sort hard to explain without saying too much. Essentially, the game is about, what do you do... when you've spent 26 years of your life failing over and over and finally you get a lucky break and then that lucky break starts to smell like all the other lucky breaks... when do you say, enough? when do you say, where has my life gone? when do you say, the world isn't worth saving? why should i do this when no one cares? The world of Raavnia (the one I built that it's set in) doesn't hail adventurers as savoirs, but instead treats them with scorn, because they always bring more trouble then they are worth. The PCs (despite their valiant quest... and it's quite complex... the character sheet is 4-5 pages) are just another band of opportunists.

In short hand, imagine a fantasy version of Wild Bunch, where no one has ever seen the Mexican army, and William Holden is an indecisive idealist, Ben Johnson is an eastern orthodox priest who has turned his whole life upside down to be part of this fruitless quest, Warren Oates is repressed and outcast dwarf ashamed of his and Ernest Borgnine is Steve Buscemi in Ghost World (providing some of levity to the tone of the game). There's one more character, but I don't have an equivalent for her.

Legolas is a virgin in my game. Does that count for anything?

Now. Taking a step back. The Fellowship of the Lost follows all the criterion of a story-game (in my opinion... last time we played we rolled dice four times in twelve hours), but it has none of the schwa of an indie game (although I could very easily run it with mountain witch). Does that forsake it from being playable con game fair because neither the SG nor non-SG crowd find it in their comfort zones?

Does playing a vampire game where you're not answering to the prince and being handed quests every session detract from the vtm model enough? or too much?

Is fantasy so passe and/or apocryphal that any game with spells is going to be ostracized out of hat?

Is there a theme that would capture your attention in a convention book (or anywhere) to steal 14 hours of your time that isn't World of Warcraft?

If these questions aren't relevant to you, can you see how they might be relevant to someone you know? Does that influence your fun?

(I'm really just typing questions now. I've written a lot here and I hope you feel comfortable addressing more than just these last questions I've raised.)

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