Sunday, November 21, 2010

Out Of The Box

And now for a few more words on ‘con scenarios. It used to be that it was very difficult to find the kind of published scenario that I would run at a roleplaying convention. Principally this was because of my requirements:
  • The scenario must be wholly based in the ‘real’ world or play on tropes and settings that are so clearly established in film or fiction that my audience will have NO issues adjusting regardless of their prior knowledge.
  • The scenario must feature pre-generated characters with enough ‘issues’ and interpersonal relationships that they can adequately fill down-time and lulls between actions. Issues must be sufficiently dramatic that characters can demonstrate their ‘roleplaying abilities’ getting to grips with them.
  • The scenario must contain a mix of build-up scenes and action scenes of sufficient intensity and length that they fit within a 3 hour time constraint, regardless of player actions.
  • The scenario must contain the prospect for success and failure, clearly established, in a way that can be examined and analysed by players in the wrap-up.
  • The scenario must use a system which can be learnt by ANYONE in less than 5 minutes, or be able to be abridged to this level.

Nowadays I’d probably expect more from a scenario, but for the last decade or so, I struggled to find published scenarios that fit this description without significant editing. So, mostly I invented my own and borrowed elements from here and there. Sometimes I’d use a scene from a good adventure, othertimes most of the adventure, but I’d have to make the pre-generated characters, which was a whole lot of work in itself.

I generally steered way from investigation based scenarios, as these could easily lead to players not finding the clue in the available time, taking up a false lead, or ultimately, to me having to fudge providing the clues.

However, I’ve noticed in recent years that there are not just a few, but many, published scenarios, which would now meet my old criteria. Notably “My Little Sister Wants You To Suffer” from Cthulhu Britannica, which I’ve now run 7 times, and which is IMHO probably one of the best ‘con scenarios out there. There are others, like Terrors From Beyond, or the Curse of the Yellow Sign series by John Wick. In addition the Gumshoe system has now put investigation scenarios back on the table for me in this format. And there are many more…

I’m not saying that everyone should run a published scenario at a 'con; just that I’m very glad that the market now seems to be delivering works which are better suited to the sorts of ‘con games that I, for one, like to run and play in.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What do we get?

This post has been a while coming. Not because it’s especially profound, but because writing jobs for the Kapcon 20 LARP have been eating my time (in a good way).

Today’s subject is campaigns. It’s been something I’ve been musing for a while now – the difference between the one-off or short run games versus the longer term campaign. Part of what made me want to consider this was this topic on the Canberra Roleplaying Meet-Up boards. Partially it was because my long-running D&D campaign GM said to me the other day that his entire aim in running a campaign; all he wanted – was to create enough mystery and interest in his players that they came back for more. Particular session-to-session enjoyment was not the driving consideration. Partially it was this very flattering post by Mash where I’m referred to as ‘the GMing Stig’ which is exactly the kind of thing that’ll make me entirely insufferable. And finally, it was because I’ve really been enjoying my Kingsport Call of Cthulhu campaign, which is now going on one year old.

So, my question out of this jumble of thoughts is; what do we, the GM’s want to get out of a campaign?

I think we can all agree that campaigns are a huge investment of time and energy, and that like all relationships they have their ups and downs. Sometimes the downs are so severe that we just want to quit. In the WFRP campaign that Mash recollects with such kindness, I suspended the game for almost a month and came very close to calling it off. Why? Because the game that I wanted to run wasn't the game that the players wanted to play. They didn’t want to have their characters snared by the (often fairly woeful) plot hooks set up by the Paths of the Damned campaign. They wanted to adventure in the Old World, and they wanted the story to come to them. If they were to investigate leads, they wanted some compelling reasons – in character – to do so. I had never had players refuse to investigate a plot before, and I felt that the rug had been pulled out from under me.

Ultimately I decided that my WFRP players were right, and I was wrong. The story should come to them. They should have compelling reasons to act, and if this wasn't within the scope of the scenario then it was down to me to create and introduce these elements. This provided me with ample opportunity to level in-game consequences and trials to really develop the character beyond the mere scope of the scenario. When I did that, I found that the more we learned about these characters, the more complex and real they were, the richer they became, and the more meaningful the action was when it came.

It may sound straightforward, but it was a watershed moment for me. And it works well in every setting I’ve tried it. I used the same technique to run an 18 month Mutants and Masterminds campaign in Canberra, and it’s the same technique I’m using for my Kingsport Tales campaign. One year on in Kingsport we know that Professor Bishop is so timid that he’d rather sleep outside on a park bench, than risk a confrontation with his landlady for coming home after hours. We know that Dr. Holden will allow himself be set up on dates with women in which he has no interest, to keep up appearances and not excite the Kingsport grapevine. We know that Karl the fisherman is so haunted by his escape from Innsmouth that he sold his fishing boat and lives in a filthy squat. And we know a whole lot more besides…

So, back to the question – what do we GM’s want to get out of a campaign? I’m not sure I’m satisfied with just eliciting a sense of mystery and trying to lure the players back to find out more. I’m not sure that simply allowing players to explore my game-world, and marvel at it’s complexity is enough either. I’m not even sure that telling stories, solving mysteries and completing scenarios cuts it any more either. I want more*. I want to actually share a story with my players. I want them to own it, and I’m willing to let them shape events and have enough control to do that justice, because I know the story will be so much stronger, so much richer, if we have collaborated to tell compelling tales about characters we all care about.

*Intended more as a general statement of intent, or manifesto, rather than a literal plea for more.