Geek & Sundry’s fun and fantastic series about games and gamers, TableTop, is returning for a new season of episodes as soon as April 4th. This is wonderful and welcome news. Host and producer Wil Wheaton hints at some of the games and guests to feature on the show over at Wil Wheaton dot Net today, so go and get ready for future eps now. Onward.
PAX East obliterated Jared Sorensen’s voice but he still had an event left to run. Players were counting on him. The convention schedule had the game session locked in. Sorensen, his voice already spent on conversations and events in the noisy convention venues, seemed fucked. But Jared Sorensen didn’t quit.
Sorensen was on the hook to run one of his new Parsely games on Sunday afternoon. Parsely games, if you don’t know, evoke classic text adventures through live, face-to-face play. One or more players (sometimes many more than one) issue commands to a person who parses (get it?) the players’ instructions in the fashion of an old text adventure, thereby navigating intriguing, frightening, exciting adventure environments like in days of yore. The players take on the role of explorers and collectors and the parser takes on the role of computer emulator, taking in the player inputs and doling out brief descriptions of the environment and the action.
“You’re in a dank cellar. The water here is ankle-deep. You smell gasoline,” the parser might say, then: “Exits are North, East, West.”
“Go East,” says a player on her turn.
I’ve wanted to do this but never have. Have you done it?
The idea is simple, the execution complex. For each major chapter in your RPG campaign, you use a different game to resolve the action. You hack and modify the games you want to use like crazy, some more than others. What starts as an investigation lead by various governments in a weary, war-torn metropolis leads to the highest tier of society (Cold City). There, in glorious and lavish penthouse ballrooms untouched by the war below, the glitterati dance and drink and dare each other (via The Dance and the Dawn) to determine who gets whom. That leads to a Fiasco involving miserable spouses, true love, stolen diamonds, and broken hearts that return us to the lowest levels of the city.
Or what about a military campaign that plays out over a century, beginning with complex machinations and paranoia (via Burning Empires) before progressing to the madness of an all-consuming galaxy-wide war (via 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars) and finally culminating in the least likely soldiers fighting in the bombed-out remains of the last human city (via Grey Ranks).
A great many of these games don’t let many characters out intact, so the traditional notion of following a core cast of PCs on a long literal or figurative journey might not work out. Rather, it might be necessary to tie individual games together with a few standout characters—who are playable only in certain chapters, maybe—or narrative connective tissue like monologues, flashbacks, or just a recurring theme or motif that brings together what would otherwise be a loose anthology.
My gut says this idea would require a lot of cooperation, maybe to the point of demanding certain metagaming choices be made during play, but I think the unique satisfaction from pulling it off would be worth it for the group that finds this compelling. Remember, the game that covers the next chapter wouldn’t have to be preordained. It might be that whoever gets the happiest result of the Fiasco story gets to decide what the next chapter is about, for example, so this wouldn’t have to be a strictly planned experience.
What games might you connect into a campaign if you could?
I laid out seven cards I’d selected from Paizo’s GameMastery deck, Urban NPCs, in a row at the middle of the table, where both of my regular players could see them.
Without any preview or overview, I tasked my players with answering the questions below. (I actually even changed the order of the questions at the last minute as I rethought the questions I was hoping would arise during the process.) We shifted the cards around the table to indicate different answers and create a quick sort of infographic describing the NPCs’ relationships with the PCs—allies were pushed above the baseline, enemies below it, dead characters were flipped over, etc.
This is part of my Dragon Age RPG (#DARPG) playtest campaign, where I try out not only new AGE System mechanics for the Dragon Age world but experiment with different techniques and styles of play. I do this all the time, in almost everything I run. From week to week I might riff on questions of pacing, timing, narrative authority, unreliable narration, and all sorts of other tricks, to give individual adventures distinctive feelings. For this particular Dragon Age campaign, we’ve been keeping separate character sheets for the characters at three different levels (3rd, 5th, and 7th now) and flashing back and forth between levels to tell nested and interwoven stories. (I’ll write more about that next.)
Because we’ve been playing the characters across multiple levels simultaneously, these relationships work a little differently than they might in another campaign. Thus we can introduce a character at an earlier point of the story knowing—all of us together—that he or she will end up feeling a certain way about the PCs later on in the story. That adds a dramatic bit of foreshadowing as well as a bit of narrative structure to climb on like a jungle gym.
We can even hop over the actual incidents that changed the characters’ relationships, since there’s little suspense there, and decide what happened in the intervening levels through alluding dialogue (“I can’t forgive you for leaving me on that island.”) or out-of-character exposition (“Remember, now that you’re not romantically involved anymore, he probably doesn’t want to see you.”). If we do choose to play out the actual scenes where relationships dissolve, solidify, or otherwise change, we may do it without engaging the dice because there won’t be questions of success or failure in involved—we’ll be dramatizing a process for which we already know the result. That can be a fun play space, too, including plenty of opportunities to riff on the facts and introduce meaningful surprises while respecting what’s come before (for us, the players) and what we know is to come (for the characters).
Here are the tasks in the order we did them:
- Two of these characters are enemies or rivals by 7th level. No matter how you feel about them, they are opposed to you now. Pick them now.
- Two of these characters are allies or cohorts. No matter how your dynamic starts, they are friends or allies now. Pick them now.
- One of these characters is alive at 5th level but dead by the time you’re 7th level. Pick that character now.
- One of these characters has a romantic dynamic with one of you—it might be mutual, it might be a love triangle, it might a one-sided infatuation. Pick that character now.
- You are indebted to one of these characters. You might owe money, service, or your life or freedom. Pick that character now.
- One of these characters has information or an object you want. Pick that character now.
In actual practice, I deviated from this a bit. Since we had a couple of characters get multiple answers, I assigned the sixth answer to one of the remaining, unselected characters, just to diversify.
Once that was done, I revealed a final wrinkle:
- Two of these characters are turncoats. They may not be what they appear for long. They may turn against you or switch to your side.
Which two characters? I predetermined that before I dealt out the seven cards and started the players’ selection process. The turncoats may not live long enough for their embedded loyalties to be revealed, they may be driven into corners or welcomed into the fold through actual play before they can change their stripes—the players still have the power to act on those characters, in other words—but the two characters I preselected have built-in goals and loyalties that go into the mix along with the players’ choices. The rest of the NPCs I put on the table get characterized now, between sessions, to fit the decisions the players made about them.
We then worked together to stat up one of those two cohorts as a companion warrior (a tank, in this case) to help the PCs in forthcoming battles.
Notice that, to start, the players have very little information to go on. They’re choosing their enemies and allies based on the most superficial features. Still, they had enough information to go on to make some surprising and provocative decisions. Both of the PCs are Dragon Age elves (one’s a city elf, one’s Dalish), with subplots about fighting for elf rights in a human-dominated world, yet they chose the only elf in the lineup to be an enemy. It surprised and enticed me as much as it did them, I think. As they moved the cards around on the table, though, interesting combinations of answers emerged and they naturally made choices that they wanted to play out or deal with the fallout from later. They didn’t shy away from drama. They created rich situations that they wanted to know more about and also wanted to play with.
The NPCs are toys, like building blocks, which the players used to build a playground.
In case you’re curious, my players ended up pairing off some of the choices in really compelling ways. They are indebted to a dead dwarf and have a romantic entanglement with one of their enemies. So we have two sources of inspiration and action awaiting us: we can dramatize the circumstances by which predetermined facts come about and we can play to find out how these circumstances get more complicated (or maybe even resolved).
I can’t wait to see what happens next.
What about traits that emerge during play between characters? What about traits that describe a group of characters, like an adventuring party or a superhero team?
I’m thinking out loud about this because of something Sage LaTorra wrote about yesterday on Twitter. While discussing the place that group traits might have (or might not have) in Dungeon World, the dungeon-delving RPG he designed with Adam Koebel, he wrote: “[A] party sheet feels prescriptive, not descriptive.” [via]
I don’t agree. I don’t think a party trait is necessarily more prescriptive than an individual character trait. Dungeon World‘s “moves” are somewhat prescriptive as it is (they say, in part, “you can act on the game world in the following ways”) and that doesn’t seem to stand in the way of emergent play. Both Dungeon World and its applauded ancestor, Apocalypse World, use move mechanics to manage and systematize player inputs, yet the interaction of moves and their described outcomes can generate unexpected and provocative emergent fiction. This is true even though these games’ parts don’t interact on the order of, say, D&D 3 or D&D 4, with their hundreds of colliding feats and interacting powers. In Dungeon World, if your character has high Strength, she’s going to be good at the Hack and Slash move unless the vagaries of the dice say otherwise.
I thought Sage was talking about emergent play and it turns out I was right. While I was writing this post, Sage updated his position on party traits, writing, “teamwork and group-ness are emergent properties of working together.” [via] He continued: “So making a group a mechanical thing is denying that fun emergence in favor of codifying.” [via]
He’s talking about what I write about below, except he’s come to a different conclusion than I have.