Posts Tagged ‘Interactive Toolkit’

The Interactive Toolkit: Part Four: Running Story Entertainments

July 23, 2008

Fifth Business

The definition of Fifth Business was given in the second part of this series. In brief, in a story entertainment there is someone known as Fifth Business who handles plot. Like a gamemaster, you, as Fifth Business, play the roles of everyone but the Lead characters. Like a gamemaster, you prepare notes ahead of time.

Unlike a gamemaster, you are not the master of the game. You are on equal footing with the Leads. Everyone is there to make a story that night, and you’re just one of the gang.

Also unlike a gamemaster, you does not come up with “adventures.”‘ You don’t arrive with a scenario to “run” because the Leads have created goals for their characters. What you do is provide opportunities for the Lead characters to achieve those Goals and obstacles to prevent the attainment of those goals. Of course, as discussed last issue, the other members of the group will help you in creating opportunities and obstacles.

Let’s say your group has decided to make up stories set in Arthurian Britain. Furthermore, it’s decided that the stories will focus on Knights alone, like the stories in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (and Greg Stafford’s excellent roleplaying game Pendragon). But we don’t want a bunch of knights who simply bump into each other one day and sally forth. We want narrative ties, as discussed last issue.

Someone suggests that the four knights are all brothers; a kind of Arthurian Bonanza. An excellent idea, for the ties of family are vitally important in Arthurian literature. Now the characters are linked, are going help each other out in a variety of jams, but can still dearly pursue their own interests. This idea is broadened out after a bit of discussion to make sure the characters are different: some of the Lead characters will be squires who want to become knights (a fine Goal for such a campaign). Perhaps the knights are not all brothers, but and descend from the same grandfather, giving a greater range of family background, but still tying them together.

Excellent. But what is Fifth Business supposed to do now?

Well, I can tell you what I did last week. I arrived at my first session of my Pendragon campaign with nothing but the outline I’ve given above and the ready use of Saxons as punching bags if I couldn’t think of anything better for the characters to do for the hours of game time we’d scheduled. Let me make this clear: I really didn’t have any idea what was going to happen, but I trusted that the players would provide what was needed and everything would work out fine.

I helped the two players make their characters. I had decided that neither character would begin the game as a knight, this was too sweet an Objective for the characters nor one I wanted to give away easily. They’d have to get knighted during game play. After giving the briefest of a cultural and political background for the campaign I asked the Leads what Goal their characters had.

Mike said he wanted land. That’s a good Objective for someone in this sort of setting. But not specific enough. “Whose land?” I asked. ‘Do you want to get it from some Saxons, or conquer a fertile manor from a noble knight?”

“From a knight,” Mike replied.

“Excellent, that’ll be hard. Are you gunning for the Earl, or just a knight.”

He said his character wasn’t ready to take on an Earl, so he’d go after a knight.

“Why are you doing this? Is there something about the land, or do you hate the knight?”

After discussing this back and forth a bit, Mike decided both. He said, “The land is especially valuable, and I hate the family. The knight has a son, and the son and I have a rivalry. We fight constantly.”

“Now, your father, does he hate them too?”

Mike smiled, getting into the groove of being a problem magnet. “No. My folks and this family are really good friends. They get along great.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes. Is there some woman I could be courting, to marry her and get her father’s land as well …?”

We set this up as well. By the time we were done we were able to define the knight’s Goal: he wanted to be a major political and military power in Britain. My job was simply to give him opportunities to attain this, and obstacles that thwarted these efforts or prevented him from advancing.

The younger brother of this knight was played by Chris. He began somewhat vague as a character, but Chris eventually provided a terrific Goal.

“I show off for the women. You know.”

“That’s an activity, but what’s your goal?” As Fifth Business, part of my job is to make the suggestions of the players concrete and useable.

“To impress them.”

“For any particular reason? Sometimes when a person shows off his or her sexuality to a group, he or she does it actually to engage the attention of one person. Is there one person you’re trying to get the attention of?”

“Yeah. How about the wife of the knight my brother wants to kill?”

I smiled. Of course. “All right. Now, how strongly do you want her? Christopher Kubasik’s rule of thumb is always make the strongest choice possible.”

“I love her more than I love my own family.”


But what about the session? All I had was Saxons, and neither Mike nor Chris had shown much interest in them. I put just blind faith in everyone and went to work.

I sent the Lead characters, Arakien and Galan out on patrol for Saxons.

Traveling with them were two knights: Sir Graid, whose daughter Arakien was wooing, and Sir Merin, Arakien’s nemesis and son of the woman Galan loved more than he loved his own family. I still had no idea what was going to happen, but I followed the Fifth Business’s first rule of thumb, put volatile characters and objects together in the same scene.

Soon Saxons attacked. The Lead characters sent Sir Merin back for reinforcements. This surprised and concerned me. I had assumed the two Lead characters would work together and kill Merin. Now what would they do? just beat up on Saxons all night? But instead of panicking, instead of trying to force the “story” the way I thought it should go and having Merin insist Graid go back for help, I let Merin go.

During the course of the struggle with the Saxons, a Saxon, Berserker cut down Sir Graid with a mortal blow. None of us knew this would happen… the dice did it. As the reinforcements rode up’ Arakien did the most despicable thing: he leaned down as if listening to the dying words of Sir Graid. Later, after the Saxons were defeated, he claimed that the knight told him Graid wanted him to marry his eldest daughter. I was wildly amused, and decided the plan might work. The Earl believed him. Things were going well for Arakien. He needed land to accomplish his Goal, and he was on his way….

But it was going too easily for him. There needed to be another obstacle, and since I was Fifth Business, it was my job to provide it.

Of course, it had been provided to me by Mike himself. Sir Merin had already been promised the daughter’s hand, I decided. His nemesis would of course be another obstacle. Upon the announcement of the marriage Merin stood up and called Arakien a liar, right in the middle of the Earl’s court. Arakien tried at first to put things right, but a contest of insults ensued, that led to a challenge of a duel. If Arakien wanted the daughter and the land, he’d have to go one on one with a well trained knight. Would he choose to do it? Yes, he would. His Goal drove him forward into potential disaster. They met that night with swords drawn, a large crowd around them.

Merin lost the duel, slain, in fact. So Arakien gained the land….

But now Merin’s mother bears great hatred for his family, and Dalan’s Goal of wooing her is met with the obstacle of her hatred….

No scenario prepared. No plot to follow. But a story is growing anyway.

Listen to the players, keep in mind the idea of obstacles, mix up volatile characters and objects, and remember you don’t have to know where you’re going. No roleplaying game ever follows the “path” of the story anyway, so a story entertainment just dismisses the whole notion of adventure. Rather than become frustrated when the characters don’t do what they’re supposed to, let them lead the story with their Characters’ Goals.


I started this series by talking about the rules of roleplaying games. But what about rules for story entertainments? Well, I’m squeezing them in at the very end because they just don’t matter much in a story entertainment.

The key thing rules do is resolve actions. Primarily, they allow the slow and complicated resolution of physical conflict. They also create an element of uncertainty when resolving actions and combat. However, as noted three issues ago, they’re also random. Stories should be uncertain, but not random. So what to do?

I suggest we turn to Mike Pondsmith’s wonderful Castle Falkenstein. It’s wonderful for many reasons but for now, we have only time to talk about the resolution system.

In Castle Falkenstein all Attributes are rated from Poor to Extraordinary, with numerical values of 2 through 12. Everyone has an Average rating in all Abilities, unless otherwise noted during character creation. To resolve any action, you use the character’s Abilities and a deck of regular playing cards. At any time, a player holds four cards in his hands. Cards are “played” by adding their total to the value of a character’s Attributes.

Let’s say you wanted your character to jump over a chasm. You’d take the value of his Athletics (let’s say it’s Average, which has a value of 4) and add a couple of cards to it. The higher the better.

The game’s Host (the ubiquitous “gamemaster,” once more in another guise) also plays cards. He sets a base Difficulty, which corresponds to your character’s Attribute, and plays cards as well. It’s a race to see who has the highest total.

You, of course, could play all your best cards. But then they’re discarded. What if you draw replacement cards and they’re not that good as the ones you just used. You might want to hold some of the good cards in reserve in case you run into more trouble on the other side of the chasm.

So, moment to moment you determine how important something is to you. If Dalan, from above, had to cross the chasm to rescue his lady love, he’d blow all his cards to get over there. She is his Goal! Who cares what his probability would be crossing the chasm. What matters is How Much Does He Want to Get Across?

And you still might not make it. That’s the beauty of the system. Like any good fictional character, you can pour your heart out to do something, and still fail. You’re not rolling a random number off a piece of plastic. You’ve invested something into the outcome because you chose how much it matters. Because it’s of value you might have used valuable cards you might need later. You’ve decided it matters that much.

What’s especially intriguing about Castle Falkenstein is its easy to use graded success system. You can get a Fumble, a Failure, a Success, a Full Success, and a High Success. Fifth Business determines the results of each card play using this system. In the example above, if you get a Full Success you’ve cleared the chasm. A Success means you’ve made it across, but are holding on by your fingernails to the edge of the chasm. A High Success might mean you jump across and are not surprised by the werewolf ready to rip your lungs out; a Failure means you fail to clear the chasm and are trapped on a ledge some three hundred feet down. And a Fumble? Well, that one’s easy.

But what about combat? Jumping over a chasm is one thing. But what about the thrusts and parries of a sword fight? What about driving an opponent to the edge of the castle walls and nearly knocking him over? What about armor, and damage, and caliber….

Well, I have this idea….

Except for a few roleplaying games (Torg and MegaTraveller come to mind) most roleplaying games assume that the result of all actions with skills (but not combat skills) can be accomplished with a singe die roll. That is, you either jump the chasm or you don’t. You either pick the lock or you don’t. Roll some dice; find out what happens.

When it comes to fighting, however, we break the combat down into all these tiny little pieces. Why? As explained in the first article in this series, because of the heritage of wargames.

But what if we treated anything involved in combat the way we treated all other skills. Let’s say your character was fighting Baron Von Zephran on the outer battlements of Castle Falkenstein and you wanted to push him back and drive him over the castle walls. Instead of using typical combat rules that breaks everything down into smaller bits, with details of hit points and modifiers for certain actions, lets say you handled the action like picking a lock. You say, “I want to drive the Baron toward the edge of the wall and push him off.”

Fifth Business says, “‘Play card with your Fencing skill.” (I’m assuming you’re using the Castle Falkenstein rule for this. I would be. However, I should note that for whatever bizarre reason, Pondsmith put hit points at the tail of end of his combat system. I say bizarre, because it’s a game that dumped so much nonsense and then stuck it back in at the last moment. What I’m proposing here uses a combat resolutions system stuck onto his rules, but it’s not the combat resolution system of Castle Falkenstein.)

You play your cards, Fifth Business plays his cards. Did you get a Full Success? You drove him over the edge. A Success? You drove him half way there, and for color Fifth Business describe how you slashed him across the cheek (No hit points or such, though.) A Failure? The two of you are still locked in combat.

Want to shoot somebody through the heart? Play your cards. Want to shoot out the light? Want to take out three guards using martial arts without making a sound? Play your cards. Using the Castle Falkenstein system, you might do it all in one attempt, you might get part of the job done, you might fail completely.

(A note: by using the system this way, it might seem advantageous to ask for the most outlandish results possible and then suffer the consequences of a Success. In other words, ask to blow his brains out with a pea shooter, and be content if you knock him out. But the way the system works, the higher the difficulty, the great greater the chance for a fumble. If you ask for too much, you’ll probably get nothing. You’re better off dividing your combat into discrete, cinematic-type actions.)

How does Fifth Business determine the value of the base difficulty? He guesses, just like he does when assigning difficulties for jumping a chasm or picking a lock in Shadowrun or Vampire and other games. Most of us know as little about gun fights as we do about jumping chasms or picking locks, but we’re willing to make arbitrary difficulty values for those actions. I assume we can do the same for combat.

The trick is, as with all other skills used in roleplaying games, common sense. If you tried to pick a lock with a banana, your Storyteller/Host/Referee/Whatever would look at you and say no. If you wanted to blow up the Empire State Building with a .22 rifle, he’d do the same. If you used an A-Bomb, nobody would bother rolling dice. I offer that most of the adjudicating required for combat between these two extremes can be done off the top of our heads. Why we need all these rules to adjudicate combat I’ll never know, because we just don’t need them.

How does someone die in this system?

It depends on the circumstances. It depends on how you define our action.

Fifth Business says, “He draws his sword. What are you going to do?”

Having lost your sword when imprisoned in the dungeon, you say, ‘-Kick the chair up with my foot and try to knock him out.” If you’d said you wanted to kill him with that chair, well that would have been really hard. Fifth Business might not let you even try. But you might knock him out.

Or, say you’re armed. You reply, “‘I draw my sword, and duel with him, attempting to find an opening and kill him.”

Cards are played. You get a Success. You stab him. Blood his drawn. But he’s still up. Why? Your action is to kill him so you need a Full Success to kill him. If you wanted to disarm him the cards you had played might have been enough, because that’s easier to do than to kill someone. So, you could try to disarm him, and then kill him, breaking the combat down into easier bits. This also breaks a fight down into specific, cinematic-style actions, making it more interesting than “I swing, you swing.”

Do you mark down the damage done for a Success? Hit points? Who cares? YOU’RE TRYING TO KILL HIM! I don’t know how many of you have noticed this, but most fights in roleplaying games end in one side just dead, dead, dead. With this system you don’t pretend all the half measures really matter. ‘Cause they don’t. All that matters his who kills who first. Or, really, who accomplishes his stated action first.

You and Fifth Business play your cards back and forth. Your companions are fighting more guards on the other side of the room. It doesn’t matter. No rounds. No hit points. Is everybody doing something interesting? Fine, let’s move on.

Fifth Business explains the swordsman has gotten some success on your character. While your character isn’t dead yet, he’s bleeding. The enemy your character is fighting is good with that sword! You need a new plan because he might kill you first. Not wear you done. Kill you. just like that. It’s actually tense… unlike most roleplaying game fights.

A new plan comes to mind. You say, “Are there chandeliers in this room?” As a fellow storyteller, you’re allowed to help build the circumstances, setting, and details of the story.

“Oh, yes,” Fifth Business answers with a smile, because he knows you’re about to try something entertaining.

“I lure him under one of them, then slash the cord tied to the wall that holds it UP, attempting to knock him unconscious.

(Wait a minute? How much damage does a chandelier do? It doesn’t matter! It’s a story entertainment! You want to knock the guy unconscious with a falling chandelier? Fine. Fifth Business sets the difficulty, not the difficulty of the sword stroke against the rope, nor difficulty of the chandelier knocking the guy out, but everything, combined into one tense play of the cards …. )

Cards are played. Since slashing the cord is easier than driving your blade through his heart, you slash the cord, Shhhhwoooomp! A Full Success! The chandelier falls on top of the swordsman! He’s out! You run off to help your friends.

Story entertainments are a loose system that can only be adjudicated within the moment. There are no hard and fast rules… only the substance of what is entertaining and interesting. What matters most is the interaction of Character Goals and Obstacles, whether the obstacles are swords, ignorance, or deep hatred by another character. If you really want to create something closer a story you can. But you’ll be better off dumping most of what we consider necessary for roleplaying games; things we assume we need but just don’t. Approach the games not as a simulation, but as an improvised story.


The Interactive Toolkit: Part Three: Character, Character, Character

July 23, 2008

The rules and wargaming baggage of most roleplaying games lead to a certain kind of story: stories filled with ambitionless mercenaries who wait around in bars for employment; heroes who have no reason to get out of bed in the morning but for the vile plans of a someone they’ve never met; and stories that stop in mid-narrative for lengthy, tactical tactical-laden fights. In contrast to roleplaying, we’re discussing in this series Story Entertainments. These improvised stories are similar in nature to roleplaying games, but are driven by the emotions and personal goals of the characters and make combat a relatively small portion of the story’s content. The tales of a story entertainment are based not on the success of actions, but on the choice of actions; not the manipulation of rules, but the manipulation of narrative tools.

The primary tool is Character. Characters drive the narrative of all stories. However, many people mistake character for characterization.

Characterization is the look of a character, the description of his voice, the quirks of habit. Characterization creates the concrete detail of a character through the use of sensory detail and exposition. By “seeing” how a character looks, how he picks up his wine glass, by knowing he has a love of fine tobacco, the character becomes concrete to our imagination, even while remaining nothing more than black ink upon a white page.

But a person thus described is not a character. A character must do.

Character is action. That’s a rule of thumb for plays and movies, and is valid as well for roleplaying games and story entertainments. This means that the best way to reveal your character is not through on an esoteric monologue about pipe and tobacco delivered by your character, but through your character’s actions.

But what actions? Not every action is true to a character; it is not enough to haphazardly do things in the name of action. Instead, actions must grow from the roots of Goals. A characterization imbued with a Goal that leads to action is a character.

Goals and Objectives

Let’s review the basic plot form of a story: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition, and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.

Clearly, every roleplaying session has something the characters want: a treasure, the kidnapped heiress, the destruction of a supply depot. These, in the context of story entertainments, are Objectives. Objectives are interchangeable. At best they are steps toward the goal, at worst they are busy-work, and thus not worth telling a story about.

What is worth telling a story about? Goals. Goals are an integral part of the character; they define who the character is. Without a goal a character has no reason to get out of bed in the morning. Or, should he stumble out of bed in order to get to his job at the toy factory, he still is not worth following. He is not a character. He is living out his life as person, but not the driving force of a story.

When a character overcomes obstacles and achieves an Objective, the story is over, but the character is still going. He is going until he achieves that Goal. For the purposes of roleplaying games, this is good news, because we like to keep our characters around for many stories. Give your character a large enough goal – avenging the death of your brother killed by the King of the Dark Dominion, and you’ll be able to play out several Objectives before your Goal is met.

Here are some characters and Goals from well-known movies:

In Casablanca, Rick is a man trying to remain neutral in the middle of a war.

The obstacles he faces are all the people around him trying to pull him to one side of the conflict or another. At the end of the movie he fails to achieve this goal: he picks a side.

In Star Wars, Han Solo is a mercenary ship’s captain. Like many a roleplaying characters, he works for money, taking jobs at they come along. Solo’s Goal is to be master of his own fate. It is this Goal that elevates him above most roleplaying characters. It is a Goal he’s far from accomplishing. A step he took to be master of his own fate was to buy the Millennium Falcon, and to do that he borrowed money from Jabba the Hutt. As a pawn of Jabba’s he’s a long way to go to attain his goal.

When he accepts the job of carrying Luke and the others to Alderaan he has an Objective that will get him closer to his Goal, by earning money to pay off Jabba. Later he changes his Objective and helps Luke rescue the Princess from the Death Stars’ detention block. Now he has a new Objective, but the same Goal. By rescuing the Princess Han still hopes to get enough money to pay off Jabba, make repairs on the Falcon and so on. In this way he can reach his Goal.

Remember, too, that Han Solo doesn’t kill the old man and the boy and keep their money. His attempt to honor his contract is an action as well, and defines him as much as his efforts to kill agents of the Empire.

Drawing on characters from movies, we find a few more tips on how to build interesting characters for story entertainments.

Characters Should Be Problem Magnets. To begin with, you need to allow your character to get into trouble in the pursuit of his or her Goal. Remember, this Goal matters so much it defines the character. Without it, your character would no longer be himself or herself. Because this Goal is so vital your character can indulge in all sorts of ridiculous, extraordinary, and even dangerous behavior in pursuit of this goal. We’re not looking for the characters who want what is safe and steady, who can rationalize their Goals out of existence because it might mean trouble. We want characters who throw themselves with wild abandon into their desires, dreams and passions!

Be surprising! Let your character’s passions and Goals drive him to actions that calmer men would not commit. In Le Morte D’Arthur Sir Balin kills an enemy of his family, the Lady of the Lake, in the middle of King Arthur’s Court. This is a terrible crime, not just for the murder, but because the laws of Hospitality require Arthur keep all guests within his castle walls safe. Balin brings terrible shame upon Arthur. In punishment, a punishment he could have anticipated had he considered his actions beforehand, the High King banishes Balin.

Now, in most roleplaying game sessions, the encounter would usually go something like this:

“You enter the Great Hall of King Arthur. There rests the Round Table; a few knights are gathered around it, telling tales of deeds done in recent months. Servants carry platters laden with pheasant and roast pig back and forth. Arthur sits on his throne, speaking with a woman. You move toward the Round Table to take your place and see the woman is none other than the Lady of the Lake, your family’s sworn enemy, upon whom you have sworn an oath to kill. What do you do?”

“I glare at her, biding my time for the proper moment of revenge.”


“If I do it now, I’ll get in trouble.”

NO! Go up and lob her head off! Or don’t. But it should always be an option to get carried away. Too often in our games we mock other players for doing the “wrong” thing, when in fact these actions are the most interesting things going on in the game. Driven by character Goals, spontaneous and dangerous, these actions are the cornerstone of the spontaneity possible within roleplaying games. In Le Morte D’Arthur, after Balin is banished, he takes part in many adventures to win back a place of affection in Arthur’s heart. Thus, the story continues, unfolding in ways unexpected, in a manner no one could have predicted had Balin “played it safe.”

Look for problems! In the Prisoner of Zenda, while Rudolph Rassendyl tries to save a nation by impersonating the country’s king he falls in love with Princess Flavia, the king’s fiancé. Oops. That wasn’t part of the plan. It complicates things. He’s given a choice because of this lovely problem. He could side with Rupert von Hentzau, the bad guy, kill the king, get the Princess and the Kingdom and live happily ever after-a dream come true. Or he could refuse von Hentzau’s offer of a dark alliance and get nothing. He refuses, of course, and leaves the princess and the kingdom after saving the day. But the fact that he had to make the choice, the fact that he was tempted-made his refusal of the offer richer. He became a much nobler and interesting man than if he never had any affections for the Princess at all. And in a roleplaying game the decision made when a choice is offered is always uncertain. The character might accept the offer, what then? What will happen next?

As the designer of the character you shouldn’t simply depend on the Fifth Business (the “gamemaster” of a story entertainment) to provide you with trouble. You should look for trouble for your character. For example, if you were playing the Lead character in the Prisoner of Zenda, choose to fall in love with Princess Flavia don’t make the Fifth Business force it on you. Look for problems in your character’s background as well. Han Solo had Jabba the Hutt on his back before Star Wars started. Luke was the son of the Dark Lord of the Sith, and didn’t even know it. You have to think: “What problems can I load my characters with?” Problems provide obstacles, and obstacles mean unexpected action must be taken. This is always more interesting than saying “We draw our swords and kill it,” for fifth time that night.

Moreover, you know best of all what kind of problems you want for your character. You might tell Fifth Business, “‘I want my character to be torn by the legacy of his father,” and leave it up to him to decide who your father is. Or maybe you’ll create the equivalent of a Darth Vader and say, “This is dad.” Filling in some of the blanks yourself or leaving it all a mystery – that’s not the part that matters. What does matter is that in a story entertainment you’re not the passive passenger in the gamemaster’s roller coaster. You are a co-creator with the Fifth Business and the other players of a story.

In the Hero System, there are all sorts of Disadvantages players can choose from. This is a step in the right direction, but all those numbers….

Why should problems built into a character be balanced against a proportional advantage? The implication is that you only take bad stuff to be more powerful. Not in a story entertainment. In a story entertainment you build problems into your character’s background and decisions because they’re entertaining. This isn’t about being fair. Stories aren’t fair. Rassendyl doesn’t get the girl in Prisoner of Zenda. It’s a great ending.

The Characters Can Come Out Empty Handed. Even Die. All of the above implies that characters could make one mistake too many and end up with nothing. Or even become a crumpled up piece of paper by the night’s end.

Yes. And you might want it to end that way. If you follow through the logic of story over game, it’s clear that survival of the characters is not the primary goal. Building a solid tale is.

Some people don’t get Call of Cthulhu. Why play a game where you’re doomed to death or insanity? You can’t win! Well, the point of the game is to create a story where you are doomed to death or insanity. It’s a HORROR story, fer cryin’ out loud. In a Conan adventure you kill all the monster, not Cthulhu.

When I play Call of Cthulhu, I have a simple goal as a player. By the end of the session my character will be dead or insane. That’s what the story is asking for, and I figure it’s my job to deliver. I have a great time doing this, because I’m not holding back; I’m not trying to be clever for my character in the face of the unstoppable Old Gods to keep him alive and sane. Nor am I playing the character as stupid. My character is simply a person caught up in a situation too big for him, whose Goals drive him toward a terrible end. In one adventure run by Mike Nystul (game master par excellence and Maestro Horror game master) I played a dock worker, Bill, whose daughter had died under terrible circumstances. My character was driven to find out what had done this to his child. With a goal like this he could be both cautious and determined. But when it came down to a choice, he had to learn more, and insanity crept slowly into his mind as he drove deeper into the truth of his daughter’s death. Did I find out what happened to my daughter? No. Did I win? Yeah, I helped make up a horror story.

We protect our characters too much. We view death as the terrible end and as a failure. But Obi Wan died. Spock died. The two British adventurers from John Huston’s film version of The Man Who Would Be King died. Vasquez, Hudson, Gorman and others die in Aliens. Engaging stories all.

It doesn’t have to be a matter of death. The fact that Rassendyl doesn’t get the girl, that Jones doesn’t get the Ark of the Covenant, that Louise isn’t able to save Claudia, all of these incomplete ends to the characters’ objectives don’t make the characters failures. The characters sought their Objectives and Goals as best they could-they were interesting because of their efforts, not the success.

Let your character screw up, make the wrong choice, end up dead. A character who dies well is more beloved than a character who starts shying away from his Goal simply to stay alive.

This is in sharp contrast to most roleplaying characters. They’re not valued for what they unexpectedly overcome, but how well they’re set up to avoid trouble in the first place. Artifacts of magic and technology bristle on their body. They are consummate professionals, avoiding emotional entanglements for fear they’ll have to do more than shoot stuff. They seek out what they know they can attain, rather than thrust themselves into positions of terrible consequence. (Remember, Ripley goes back to face more aliens in Aliens. She can guess how bad things will be this time around. She goes though, not because she’s acquired enough “experience” or whatnot to handle the situation comfortably, but because only by helping the colonists can she accomplish her Goal, to exorcise her nightmares.)

The Group

Movies usually focus on one character at a time. Story Entertainments involve several Leads. With everyone pursuing Goals there is the potential for a narrative train crash. How to keep everyone in the same story?

First, the character creation process should be a group effort. This way everyone can bounce ideas off one another to create shared backgrounds, relationships, and Goals. A story entertainment is not about five strangers who happen to work together. It’s about five characters who are bound together in some way. The characters might only spend one adventure together, or might be bonded so deeply as to almost be a family. What matters is that everyone have a stake in the group for the purposes of the story.

For example, the characters might be related. Or they might have a relationship based on business: a bodyguard and his employer, a Lord and his faithful servant. (Notice that they are all not bodyguards hired by NPCS; some of the Lead’s characters are guarding other Lead’s characters.) They might all be after the same Objective or Goal: The Holy Grail, the Death of a Despot, or to escape their hellish lives on mining colony on Mars.

What you are looking for are threads that tie the characters together when choices of actions might tear them apart. Of course, the threads may not be strong enough in a dramatic situation and the group might tear itself apart. That’s part of the story. But at least a decision was made, and the decision has narrative weight because of the now broken ties.

These threads will also keep the group together when one character’s Goal is given more weight in a session one night. If Jim’s character wants to be Pope, but the night’s session is about Jenny’s character’s attempt to secure enough money to get off planet, he’s got a reason to help her out because they’re brother and sister.

Multiple characters will be of help as well. The goal, remember, is story, not character advancement. Characters can walk off stage for a session or two, and return when it’s more appropriate. By building the equivalent of a Soap Opera cast, varied, but connected, you’ll be able to keep all the Leads involved, even if the characters change around. It’s even possible for different Leads to share the same characters, passing them around as needed.

Leads can even play some of Fifth Business’s characters. Some of my most enjoyable roleplaying was done when the gamemaster let me pick up the “bit parts” in scenes where my primary character wasn’t involved. Such rotation of roles allows everyone to stay involved, gives Fifth Business a break in crowd scenes, and is wildly entertaining.

So stay focused on Goals, actions, and creating obstacles. Be generous to the story, not selfish with your character. Be outlandish. The chance to roleplay doesn’t have to be a chance to win. It could be seen as a chance to portray the extraordinary.

Next Time

How does the Fifth Business deal with making the adventure up off the top of his head? And what about the rules?

The Interactive Toolkit: Part Two: Why Do Modules Suck?

July 23, 2008

If you’re one of the people who buy published adventures, you’re probably one of the people who complain about them. You’ve found them to be so linear that they undo the open-ended nature of roleplaying games. Or they’re so open-ended that they’re utterly useless. Or they’re too heavy on combat. Or they’re too subtle for players to puzzle through. These complaints are all valid. Most modules (as published adventures used to be known) don’t work.

Here’s at look at why.

The basic plot form of a story is this: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition, and arrives at a win, lose or draw. All roleplaying games involve this basic plot in one form or another.

Dungeon & Dragons fulfilled this requirement brilliantly and simply. Characters wanted experience points and wanted to gain levels. Any other want they might have had – social, political or personal – was subsumed within the acquisition of levels. Did you want social recognition? A greater understanding of the ways of magic? Influence over people as a religious leader? Pretty much anything your character might have wanted was acquired by gaining levels.

Dungeon modules worked for this very reason. A D&D character who wanted to become a lord didn’t go off and court a princess. He became a lord by wandering around dungeons, killing monsters and overcoming traps. The game offered no rules for courting a princess, but did provide rules for becoming a lord at 10th level, after looting enough arbitrarily placed holes in the ground.

Modules disintegrated the moment a player got the bright idea of having his character become a lord by courting a princess. Suddenly the world opened up. Instead of getting what they wanted by pursuing a single activity – namely, overcoming traps and monsters characters now wanted to interact with people, gaining what they wanted through individual action and detailed plots.

The motivation behind hitting on the princess rather than crawling through a series of traps is obvious. First, and perhaps most importantly for some, the idea of wooing a princess was more fun than hanging out in a dungeon. Second, just because the rules didn’t say anything about wooing didn’t mean you couldn’t do it. As we all know, the minute an idea pops into a player’s head, he’s going to try it. Third, the goofiness of acquiring the title of lord by looting holes grated against the sensibilities of many players. They wanted to become lords in ways that made sense.

Games released since the advent of D&D have wildly opened up the narrative possibilities of adventures. The dungeon vanished, replaced by the settings of AD&D’s Forgotten Realms, Traveller’s Imperium, Star Wars’ Empire and Vampire’s World of Darkness.

Unfortunately, characters in many games still have to stick it out as a group. Since dungeon crawling no longer provides a focus for group activity, characters are often hired, as in Traveller or Shadowrun, or wait around for something bad to happen that they can put an end to, as in most super-hero games.

Designing Adventure Modules

The expansion of narrative possibilities by recent games has led to the development of two basic types of modules: location based and scene based. Both work on the same premise: A module contains a list of adventure blocks – either rooms on a map or a sequence of scenes floating in a kind of “plot void.” Characters move around the map or plot void, enter a room or scene, “activate” it, deal with whatever is in the room or scene and then go to the next block.

Location-based modules are the standard for TSR products. Though they started in dungeons, they aren’t confined to them. A TSR module might be set in a village, swamp, inhabited castle or an entire city. But invariably there is a map with a key. Characters can go anywhere on the map. Whatever they need to solve the problem at hand – whether it’s solving a mystery, defeating an evil wizard, gaining a valuable treasure or marrying a princess – is found by traveling to keyed locations.

Almost every game system that’s come out since D&D tells scene-based rather than location-based stories in its modules. People really like the open-ended possibilities of roleplaying games, and scene-based games make use of this freedom. Star Wars, Vampire and Shadowrun all use this format. Although adventure modules might contain keyed maps, those maps are contained within a structure of scenes.

Scene-based modules engage characters in a goal from the start (steal the money, stop Dr. Dread’s Doomsday Ray, get Mr. Johnson his data, make peace with the Prince of Chicago) and offer a set of options of where to go and with whom to speak to fulfill the goal.

The problem with scene-based modules is that characters may go anywhere and do anything. Unlike location-based adventures, where it’s understood that everything needed to succeed is geographically at hand, a story-based game suggests that the next vital Clue/person/conflict could be anywhere. This often leads characters to visit places and talk to people (or make assumptions of any kind) not explicitly covered in the module. The GM who bought the module (so she wouldn’t have to make up maps and NPCS) suddenly has to make up both on the spot.

There are three solutions to this problem, and they fall upon, module writers (or we GMS who are prepared to redesign the adventures we purchase) to act upon.

The first is to create modules like those first designed for Star Wars the “lead the players by the nose” variety. Characters are forced to go from one scene to the next, each scene ending with a big red arrow that says GO THIS WAY! This style of module makes players fidgety, if not hostile, and should be avoided.

The second solution is for the module writer to read the minds of people he doesn’t know, consider all the possibly decisions that the characters might come up with, and somehow account for all these possibilities in 64 pages not counting the 6 to 10 pages that are reserved for art.

The third, and only possible sane option, is to try to balance the first two options and hope for the best.

Ultimately, no matter how hard she tries, the module writer can’t create something that will work for everybody.

One player’s “good clue” is another player’s “he’s leading us by the nose.” Also, since the adventure’s story is open, ended, there’s no way to guess what players are going to have their characters do.

Finally, no pre-generated adventure can be complete because characters have different motivations.

Remember the adventurer who left the dungeon to woo a princess? Before he did that he assumed that if he trashed enough dungeons, a princess would be his once he got to 10th level. His motivations and desires were subsumed within the group activity of exploring dungeons.

Let’s say this guy – Charise d’Amor, a lovable rake who’s trying to marry a rich princess – is your character. You arrive at the gaming table and see the GM crack open a new pre-generated adventure, “The Quest of Tallian’s Orb.”

A busy wizard hires your group of adventurers to steal back a magical orb that keeps the fair land of Tallian safe from terrible monsters. He tells you what he knows about the theft of the orb. You’re on the doorstep of a scene-based module. You know the goal, the clues and the options of what to do next.

Let’s assume the author has done a good job. The clues presented are intriguing, not obvious. The characters encountered are amusing and full of life. The scene descriptions help the GM evoke the proper mood. Every, thing is going fine.

And then the princess shows up. The module’s author just put the princess in because she was a fun character who would have some information about the orb’s location. You see, the guy who wrote the module didn’t know your character is Charise d’Amor.

Suddenly your character doesn’t care about finding the orb. The only reason he’s out searching for an orb in the first place is to pull together enough cash for a suitable set of clothes and an introduction to royalty. But now he’s got a princess right in front of him. You could play “out hours of flirting with the princess. The story suddenly fractures into tiny pieces.

Does everybody wait around for Charise to woo the princess? Do the others leave your character behind? Do you blow the princess off to stay with the group, even though your character’s motivation is right in front of him?

It could be worse. Could the module’s author have known that one of the players’ characters, Bombim the Barbarian, believes that wizards are the scourge of the planet and he’ll never take a job from one? Nope. The whole adventure would end before it begins. Sure, the GM can change the module, refitting circumstances and character choices to match the party. But then why buy it in the first place?

The problem is this: simple plots and sophisticated characters just don’t mix. If you ‘want a character who’s more than a hired gun, you’ll be disappointed by pre-generated adventures. And adventures released for recent games only make the problem worse.

Story Games

There’s a new type of roleplaying game out there for which it is even harder to write modules. In fact, it’s impossible to write modules for them. In these ‘games the characters actually are characters. As in the definition at the start of this article, they have wants. The wants of the characters are made up during character creation. The whole point of playing them is to see if the characters will move closer to a win, lose or draw in the attempt to fulfill their wants. They aren’t waiting around for plots to drop into their laps as do mercenaries Or super-heroes. They are the stories.

These games include Ars Magica, Vampire and all the others in the Storyteller Series, Amber Diceless and Castle Falkenstein. In Ars Magica, characters are part of a tightknit organization that sets goals and ambitions for the group. In Vampire, the characters are a group of warring factions, sometimes searching for final rest, sometimes searching to become human, sometimes looking for power over a city. In Castle Falkenstein, characters create their own nemeses and name their own social, romantic and professional goals.

In most roleplaying stories, the plot is indifferent to the characters. You can drop any character in, and it works fine. This phenomenon goes back to roleplaying’s heritage in wargaming. It didn’t matter why armies fought. All that mattered were choices during battle and the battle’s outcome. The same can be said for a dungeon crawl or mercenary adventure story.

But as you build more sophisticated characters, characters with more detailed dreams, desires and quirks, stories much change correspondingly. If not, they remain clunky, leaving players and GMs with a vague dissatisfaction: “How come we did all that work on our characters if it didn’t matter?”

Of course, modules can be written for these rich characters. You can try to build interesting strap-in-the-players, roller coaster stories for interesting characters. For example, a moody, thematically rich adventure for Vampire that’s filled with detailed, complicated characters could be published Let’s say it’s about the conflicts between the vampires of Chicago and Gary and hope it works better than other modules. But it won’t. Because what if the characters don’t care about Gary?

Changing the nature of adventure modules to suit these more sophisticated games doesn’t help. The problem is with the structure and format of the adventures themselves. We keep stapling new ideas on top of old ones, putting more interesting characters into formats designed for dungeon crawls. If you want more interesting characters, you have to take the risk of having more interesting stories.

Story Entertainments

In Part One of this series, I rummaged through the rules of roleplaying games and picked out the rules and ideas that I thought got in the way of broadening the scope of roleplaying stories. Now I’m going to gut some of the assumptions of the stories we usually tell. Let me state again that what I’m discussing is not better than roleplaying, nor an evolutionary advancement. It’s just different.

I won’t call my subject a roleplaying game. That sidesteps the issue of which company is doing roleplaying games “right” – if anyone is. We’ll take a cue from Mike Pondsmith’s clever Castle Falkenstein term “Adventure Entertainments” and dub this new social activity “Story Entertainments.” The evening’s gathering is now focused on story, rather than on the partaking of roles. However, people are still playing characters. Moreover, by removing the term “game” and replacing it with entertainment,” we remove concerns about winning – whether as a group or an individual player. The goal is to improvise an entertaining story; to get together and have a good time or, if a powerful sentiment is carefully introduced, be moved. What we don’t want to do is sit around a table staring grimly down at character sheets.

So, what are the differences between roleplaying games and Story Entertainments? Let’s start with roleplaying’s GM (referee, Storyteller or whatever). This is usually the person who works out the plot, the world and everything that isn’t the players’. To a greater or lesser degree, she is above the other players in importance, depending on the group’s temperament. In a Story Entertainment, she is just another player. Distinctly different, but no more and no less than any other player. The terms GM and referee fail to convey this spirit of equality. The term Storyteller suggests that the players are passive listeners of her tale. So here’s another term for this participant – one that invokes the spirit of Story Entertainments – Fifth Business.

Fifth Business is a term that originates from European opera companies. A character from Robertson Davies’ novel Fifth Business describes the’ term this way:

You cannot make a plot work without another man, and he is usually a baritone, and he is called in the profession Fifth Business. You must have a Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero’s birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody’s death, if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without the Fifth Business!

This certainly sounds a lot like a GM, but it also makes it clear that he’s part of the show, not the show itself.

Let’s call the players the Leads. They’re not players in the GM’s game. They’re participants in a story. The Fifth Business has a lot more work to do than do the Leads, changing costumes and shaping the story while it’s in progress. But the Leads are equal to the Fifth Business. The Leads must react to the characters, incidents and information that the Fifth Business offers, just as players must react to what the GM offers in a roleplaying game. But the Fifth Business must always be on his toes and react to what the Leads offer.


Because in a Story Entertainment the story doesn’t belong to the Fifth Business. The Fifth Business can’t decide what the plot is going to be and then run the players through it like mice in a maze. The Leads determine the direction of the story when they create their characters. Remember our definition of plot from the start of this article? What do the characters want? What are their goals? The story is about the attempt to gain those goals. The Fifth Business creates obstacles to those goals.

Let’s say you’re a space-faring smuggler who needs to pay off massive debts to an interstellar loan shark. The Fifth Business provides an opportunity for the smuggler to pay off his debt some kid, an old man and two robots need passage to a planet and don’t want the Stellar Dominion to know about it.

It sounds like a standard adventure scenario – your character’s hired to do a job and all – but it isn’t standard roleplaying fare. The goal of the night’s session isn’t to complete the mission that the Fifth Business sets before you. It’s for your character to get out from under the thumb of the loan shark.

Your smuggler might refuse the job. If he does, the loan shark’s goons might come after him, asking where the latest payment is. Your smuggler might then decide to transport the kid after all. Or he might just skip the planet and hope for the best. He might kill the loan shark, and then it becomes a story about staying alive with the loan shark’s thugs in pursuit. Hell, your smuggler might sell the kid to the Dominion.

Or during the trip, a new opportunity for money might come up: if they rescue a princess, says the kid, the smuggler will make more money than he can imagine. Will he take it or pass? The adventure doesn’t depend on the right answer. There is no right answer. There’s only the story, as created by everyone gathered that night. In a Story Entertainment, no one knows how the thing’s going to end or even what the story is. The plot is unknown. What is known are the characters’ goals, the fact that the Fifth Business is going to provide opportunities for those wants to be met, and the fact that the Fifth Business is going to impose obstacles for the characters. It’s also known that at some time those goals are going to be pursued to a win, loss or draw in terms of their fufillment.

It’s just like watching a movie unfold before your eyes.

Of course, pulling all this together with several Leads, all with their own goals and on the spur of the moment, is a daunting prospect. So in the next installment of this series, I’ll discuss how characters, rules and plots are woven together to create successful Story Entertainment.

The Interactive Toolkit: Part One: Simulation or Story?

July 23, 2008

The tactical elements of roleplaying games bore me. I want stories driven by character, not die rolls.

Oh, no! Not the “roleplaying” vs. roll-playing” debate!

No. Most roleplaying games involve both dice and characters, so it’s not really a useful debate. The real question is what kind of story do roleplaying games tell? Because of their emphasis on tactics and the baggage left over from wargames, roleplaying games lean toward a certain type of fiction. It’s the fiction of Mack Bolan, Soldier of Fortune field reports and William Gibson’s novels (with the irony ripped out). These aren’t the kinds of stories I want to tell. I want to tell stories in which character and story take precedence over plot and weapon caliber.

And I’m not alone. Game designers often try to disguise the origins of their games, replacing the word “roleplaying” with “storytelling,” for example, or “gamemaster” with storyteller.” Moreover, increasing numbers of people are introduced to the hobby through games like Vampire: The Masquerade and other recent story-based games. Newcomers are bypassing the once standard apprenticeship with D&D, advancing to more “-sophisticated” games. Obviously, these new players don’t want the D&D stuff. They want the story and character stuff of more recent games.

But – and this is the whole point, so pay attention – even new games that proclaim that story and character are their purpose are bogged down by 20-year-old ideas and concepts, concepts that get in the way of character-driven stories. New games’ rules, adventure designs and the way characters are created and interact with stories are all tied to D&D and 64 old-style” games. We think we’ve dumped a lot of baggage; we take pride in not having Levels and Classes anymore. Folks, we’ve barely begun to dump the excess baggage. If you really want to improvise games that are like the stories you read rather than sessions of Zelda you play, it’s time to lose more baggage.

In this, the first part of this series, I’m going to examine assumptions in game design that get in the way of the kind of stories we want to tell. In future articles, I’ll discuss what to replace these assumptions with once they’ve been ripped out. It’s not a matter of being more advanced than current roleplaying games, nor better. As I said before, tactics bore me. Three hour fights are dull. I want character. I want story. I want to play something like current roleplaying games, but different. And popular trends in gaming seem to suggest that you do too.

But first we have to examine how today’s rules work.

The Fiction of Combat

You might think that you can tell any kind of story with any kind of game system. Wrong! You can put any chrome on a roleplaying game – space opera, high fantasy, court politics but at the core of every game and its rules is a common logic and set of beliefs.

Flip open your rulebook. Any rulebook. See that big chapter on combat? And the equally large chapters on technology and magic, both of which are used primarily for combat? Stories don’t need all that stuff.

White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade is a game about the brooding affairs of immortal vampires and their clan disputes. It’s moody. It’s horror. It’s about personality and character. For some bizarro reason, there’s space in the rules devoted to distinguishing between the damage done by shotguns and that of Uzis.

If Tom Clancy hunkered down to grind out a vampire story, gun damage distinctions would make sense. That would be Clancy’s kind of a vampire story. Now imagine Anne Rice distinguishing between shotgun gauge in the middle of combat (or listing any of the other infinite variables that roleplaying games assign to combat). In a Rice story, a gun is a gun. If it hits, you die or you don’t or you’re mortally wounded. If the gauge is mentioned, it’s only to add authenticity to the story, not to provide armchair mercenaries with debate-grist: “Well, if I were Lestat I’d have loaded up with incendiary shells.”

The narrative of most roleplaying games is tactical simulation fiction. This style of story revolves around weapons and split second decisions made during combat. Such stories discourage flamboyant behavior though flamboyant behavior is often a vital part of the fiction that the games try to model – because better combat modifiers are gained with conservative tactics. Characters in these simulation stories are clever, resilient and skilled. They’re ready for combat and often not much else. Their goals usually boil down to the acquisition of power of one kind or another. Indeed, their goals, desires and even identities seldom have much to do with the story struggling to be told. Typically, characters of modern roleplaying stories are indifferent mercenaries hired in a bar or heroes who run to the rescue only after a threat arises.

It’s assumed that roleplaying games need these tactics, morale modifiers and tables of weapons. After all, that’s the way it’s always been.

But why?

A Heritage of Simulation

Roleplaying games are an out growth of wargames, a form of entertainment that’s existed in one form or another for centuries. In wargames, players assume the roles of commanders of armies in conflict. The armies are represented with lead miniatures or cardboard counters that are spread out across modeled terrain or illustrated map boards. The simulations depict anything from Roman legions fighting barbarian hordes to tank corps in conflict in WWII Northern Africa to starships duking it out above a valuable planet.

The point is to create a “realistic” model of the battle at hand. In the search for the perfect simulation, loads of variables are considered – details about supplies, information, morale, flanking attacks, weapons breaking down, fatigue and disease. The desire for complexity or simplicity has swung back and forth over the centuries. Back in 1876, Colonel von Verdy du Vernois complained that wargames were so complex that he couldn’t play them. His solution was to give more freedom and responsibility to an “umpire” who was knowledgeable in warfare and who could run things realistically without having to resort to so many tables, charts and die rolls. (Hmmm.)

Roleplaying games as we understand them originated 30 years ago – a decade before Dungeons & Dragons saw the light of day – when wargamers in Minneapolis each controlled one soldier instead of whole armies. Then a new twist was added: a fantasy setting. You could be a wizard and face the challenges before you with magic.

Eventually this fantasy game, Blackmoor, was subsumed back into wargaming when magic was added to medieval tabletop battles.

After that a lot of ideas melded and shifted, and Dungeons & Dragons was born. Experience points, the acquisition of spells and seizing treasure became the staple of a new kind of social entertainment.

It’s no surprise that Gary Gygax and others carried a lot of wargaming over into Dungeon & Dragons. What is surprising is how much of the wargaming hobby is still with us. If we want a social pastime based on stories, why are we using rules and concepts borrowed from tabletop wars? And what if we examined this heritage and pried out what we assume we require but don’t really need at all? What would we be left with? What could we keep by choice rather than habit?

A graphic example of habit is miniatures. The fact that miniature lines are produced for games that don’t need miniatures, that in fact don’t have rules for miniatures, shows that our hobby often works from habit rather than logic. Miniatures for Champions? A game in which characters move faster than the speed of light? What scale, exactly, are you going to map a fight on? Miniatures for Vampire – a game that revolves around brooding over a horrible fate, clan politics and getting some? What use can miniatures possibly serve? Vampire isn’t a tactical setting. If not for the stick-in-the-mud mentality that ties us to wargaming, no one would think of putting Vampire miniatures on the shelf.

Here are some of the habits left over from wargames that many of us don’t really need or want.

    Emphasis on tactics:

Wargames are entertainments designed around letting you become, for a day at least, a military genius. The fun of the game lies not only in defeating your opponent, but mastering the countless variables that military commanders have to deal with and then carrying the day to victory.

All right. Now let’s think about the combat you read about in fiction stories. I’m not talking about a simulation of combat that’s shoved into the middle of a story, but the combat you actually find in a novel.

Here’s an example from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Bilbo, wearing his magic ring and thus invisible, fights off the spiders of Mirkwood so his dwarven companions can escape:

He darted backwards and forwards, slashing at spiders-threads, hacking at their legs, and stabbing at their fat bodies if they came too near. The spiders swelled with rage, and sputtered and frothed, and hissed out horrible curses; but they had become mortally afraid of Sting and dared not come very near. So curse as they would, their prey moved slowly but steadily away. It was a most terrible business, and seemed to take hours. But at last, just when Bilbo felt that he could not lift his hand for a single stroke more, the spiders suddenly gave it up, and followed them no more, but went back disappointed to their dark colony.

That’s it. No choices about attacking from the rear, with a berserker double stroke or whatever. The choices Bilbo makes are character choices, not tactical ones. First, whether to fight at all, and second, whether to reveal the powers of his magic ring to the dwarves.

Such choices are available in roleplaying games. But once you’ve made them you’re trapped in a nightmare of endless combat decisions, sword strokes and squeezing of triggers. Combat in roleplaying is comparable to John Woo shooting an entire fight sequence in slow motion. The reason his brief slow motion moments work is because they’re in contrast to the rest of his footage – a single highlight of a moment to make it stand out. An entire fight in slow motion, as staged with the Hero System or GURPS, for example, could easily be the most boring way to spend a Friday night.

The outcome of a decision in a piece of fiction is uncertain. That’s why you keep turning pages to find out what happens. A story-based game of any type should make you want to know what the results of your actions are. Obviously, some sort of resolution system is required. The trick is to retain everything that’s needed to depict a game s fight, focusing on the key moments, and cutting out the nonsense. That way you can move on to find out what the results of the fight are – you can keep “turning the pages.”

Here’s a description of a swashbuckling duel from the pages of Mike Pondsmith’s wonderful Castle Falkenstein. Pondsmith explains why the game’s dueling system is more abstract than the combat systems of most roleplaying games; that is, why the duel is not a series of attack and damage rolls. If one were to sum up a duel in the world of Castle Falkenstein, it would go something like this:

Hero duels Villain. Battle goes back and forth along the parapet, with each side momentarily forcing the other back into a perilous retreat (to the edge of a yawning chasm). Occasionally someone is slashed or cut, but not in any meaningful way. Then, suddenly, the Hero (or the Villain) gets the upper hand, and drives a mighty thrust into his opponent, who slumps lifeless (but not always dead) on the ground.

In a piece of fiction the wound is either critical or not; either the fight continues or it doesn’t. That’s very different than having a character whittled down slowly by losing hit point after hit point. When you’re whittled down slowly by hit points, every attack is crucial. You’re character comes that much closer to death. In the description above, the duel is simply prolonged until it’s won.

I’m sure the cries are already rising: “That’s not realistic!”

    Fake realism:

I’ve been in the hobby since the late ’70s, first as player, then as an infrequent visitor to game stores, then as a writer in the industry and now as a gamer again. During all these years, nothing has confused me so much as fellow gamers who argue over whether or not a particular system is “realistic.”

Drawing on the wargaming tradition, roleplaying game designers and consumers often rate a game according to it’s obsession with finer and finer detail of “reality.” But detail, if it’s dumb detail, doesn’t make something “realistic.”

Let’s get this out of the way now. Roleplaying games model violence as realistically as Monopoly realistically models the business of real estate. For example, hit points. Whether you call them Health Points, Body Points, or just plain old fashioned Hit Points, the idea that people are whittled people down during combat is perversely stupid. It just doesn’t work that way. A 1962 Surgeon General’s study of gunshot wounds during WWII and the Korean War found that there are three effects of being shot: Death, Shock or Nothing. That’s it. You simply die from the first bullet, go into shock and are out of combat, or nothing happens to you at all.

The Nothing category involves the bullet passing through the body without effect; the bullet striking the body and simply bouncing off (yeah, even large caliber bullets); or wounds that don’t immediately have an effect in the middle of combat but lead to complications later – bleeding and infections, for example. What do hit points have to do with such effects?

What about sword fights? Although melee weapons offer a greater chance to wear an opponent down in the style of hit points, you’re still looking for that one blow that overcomes your opponent’s body she goes into shock or dies. It isn’t that “cumulative” damage isn’t sustained; a man might leave a sword fight with a broken arm and a punctured lung. But it’s much closer to Pondsmith’s quote above: until that one blow strikes home and takes a combatant out, no blow matters.

So why do roleplaying games have hit points? They’re a rule carryover from wargames. Players used to command units of soldiers. As the units took damage, soldiers were removed from play. Continuous damage whittled down a unit’s strength. But a unit of soldiers slowly losing strength is completely different from an individual slowly dying. Especially since, as noted above, individuals rarely die slowly from the effects of weapons.

The effect of hit points in a roleplaying context is part of the telescoped, tactical decision-making process of roleplaying game combat. But it’s so blatantly artificial that we can now dismiss it. We can replace hit points with a new set of artificial and nonsensical conventions based on stories rather than tactical simulations.

The obsession with one caliber or weapon type over another: Although there are gross differences that can be taken into account between weapons, in a piece of fiction all that matters is whether you or your opponent goes down. Weapons are currently focused on so that a certain kind of player can think himself wise and clever in matters paramilitary. Character-based games don’t need this baggage. It shifts focus from character and character goals to thoughts about how to get an extra two points of damage in the next fight.

Called shots and other moment-to-moment tactical decisions in the middle of combat: As if anyone in the middle of a gunfight really takes the time to plan a head shot. (For you “realism” fanatics out there, most soldiers in a fire fight don’t even shoot. They’re too busy trying to stay alive, let alone trying to aim properly.) Sure, snipers plan shots, but that’s a specific part of the story. What matters to a story is whether the desired result occurs, not the infinitesimal collection of actions that lead to that result.

    Random results:

The use of dice is left over from wargames. Players were in charge of armies. Die results were needed to simulate all the random details that commanders deal with in battle. Dice are great for creating the sense of utter confusion and randomness of battle. They’re not helpful in stories because the outcome of an event in a story should be uncertain, not random.

The gamemaster as a superior participant to the storytelling session: In wargames, the ref portrays all the forces of nature and logic working across the battlefield. In a tactical game this is fine – the players want someone to handle all the unknowns, to create part of the challenge of being a commander. But in a story game?

Whether the gamemaster takes on the unfortunate adversarial role ‘ common to many early D&D games or the Storyteller role of White Wolf’s games, the implication is that the players are ticket holders to a roller coaster, strapping themselves in for a ride. If the gamemaster builds a good roller coaster ride, the players have a good time. If not, they have to work hard to stay on the tracks and entertain themselves.

Let me suggest that the gamemaster and players arc put on equal footing. The purpose of the gamemaster still exists – she fills in all the blanks of the world, wears the hats and costumes of a cast of millions and creates conflicts for the characters – but she makes up the story along with the players. She doesn’t know how the story will turn out, just as the players don’t. The evening’s challenge is not in making the correct tactical decisions to beat up Nephandi or Nazis. The game is about creating a story.

Next issue I want to look at how the conventions of wargaming shape adventure modules and the stories and plots we develop for roleplaying sessions.

The Interactive Toolkit: An Introduction

July 23, 2008

I wrote this series of articles for White Wolf / Inphobia Magazine about 15 years ago.

At the time I had been writing game rules, supplements and modules for several years. I had reached the end of the line for the hobby. I knew that the game companies kept saying that we would be giving the players a chance to build stories. But I knew that we were NOT giving Players the chance to build stories.

The games themselves were ill-suited as tools to build stories. The modules we published — written without any knowledge of who the protagonists might be — could of course never make proper stories since what mattered to the protagonist might have nothing to do with what was happening in the module. I babbled on about all this at great length for for issues.

At the time I saw no changes coming from the publishing companies. They knew how to make what they were making and creating something new would either frighten off or piss off our customers. I stopped writing for RPGs around then. I realized that I was a story geek, and that what mattered to me was stories.

Years later I would come across the game Sorcerer by Ron Edwards I was blown away — because here was a game that did so many of the things that I had been writing about in my Interactive Toolkit article years earlier. I never thought I would see such a game…. but here it was.

Lou Prosperi eventually contacted me and asked if he could post my articles on the Internet. I said sure. I really didn’t think anyone had paid any attention to them. It turns out I was wrong, and that they influenced the play of at least a few people’s games and playing style.

I’m posting them here, cleaned up, so people can see what I cared about back then, and what I’ll be caring about as I write Play Sorcerer.