**Disclaimer** The following blog is a parody. For avoidance of doubt, Otto von Quarzis is NOT a prophet and his former Rules Firm is NOT a law firm, does not provide legal advice, and, you know... isn't real. Carry on.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

On Being Heroic

This was to be the obligatory "post-first play through of D&D 5e" post (as an astute reader might tell from the time stamp... it got diverted).  However, last night my friends and I played through another 5th Edition D&D adventure that brought a germ of an idea I had in our first D&D Starter Set Adventure - in that adventure one of our player's characters died.  It was quite the legitimate death too.  He had almost been killed before, but our cleric saved him (good thing too... he was on his second failed death roll - the dice were not kind that night).  His actual death came in a fair end of the day's adventure fight.  And THAT was going to be what my original post was about, except, he said something before he died...

"I don't care.  If I'm a hero and I do heroic stuff, if I die, I die."

I'm certainly paraphrasing here (I was on my second beer... Keegan Ale's Joe Mamas Milk - very good by the way, highly recommend), but you get the point.  This player called out something that I had forgotten, which is - in really heroic stories, people often die.  The "old school" D&D seemed to know this, and hence, monstrosities like Tomb of Horrors were born.  Perhaps, it is just me - but, it has seemed lately that games have steered farther and farther away from player's deaths and characters that can easily die (more on this concept below).

Last night, I was reminded of this, as my wizard was reduced to half hit points in one blow (and he's at level 4 - which even with the older editions was nothing to scoff at).  Now, to set the stage even further - he did an incredibly stupid thing.  He ran up to a fire giant, and began poking and prodding it so that he could study its physiology and make notes in a series of books he is writing on fantastic creatures. Needless to say, that him even just being alive owes itself to a seriously fortunate stroke of luck (and some creative use of the divination portend power).  So there you have it - two different results, but both based on actions that we ourselves as player would never have done - but our characters totally would have.1  These actions, I like to call "heroic actions."

Now, I use the term in more of a historical German-Norse sense than what is traditionally considered heroic today.  It isn't just standing for something good in the face of overwhelming odds.  The Norse concept of good and evil is vastly different than our sensibilities.  However, as much of the fantasy genre owes much to the ancient Germans and Norse culture, I feel it is appropriate to look to it for an expanded definition.  In the stories that permeate the culture are tales of the gods, Loki, Odin, and Thor to name some of the most well known, that have grand adventures - and often times for no purpose other than to pull the tale of the great serpent that entangles the world, bash giants (because you know, they're giants), and general sneaking around. In short, they aren't necessarily out to take over the world (although there are plenty of world taking-over and/or destroying tales as well), but they are heroic in the sense of over-the-top antics and actions.

But for really over-the-top actions, one needs to suspend their fear of dying.  Many of the ancient stories are exactly about that - courage in the face of overwhelming odds.  Courage is one of the most important elements for a really memorable "heroic" story.  However, courage is hardly a game mechanic that one can bake into their games.  It is sort of assumed by many designers that the characters will just press forward.  However, I would argue that many of the most memorable moments in games I have played have come from off-the-wall moments that weren't created by just running head-long into an encounter for no reason - but doing so in spite of the player's better judgment because they HAD TO DO SO.  Compelled courage - creates some fantastic situations.  How do you compel courage - flaws.

I believe character flaws are one of the most under-used game mechanics.  This humble "role-playing throw away" really should be put front and center.  Some players naturally make their characters flawed - the player, whose character died as related in the first paragraph, often creates characters with elaborate back stories and personalities (often quirky) and plays them to the hilt.  I think one of the most often heard phrases I hear when gaming with him is - "well, my character would do [insert some random, weird and usually highly dangerous thing here]."  However, I have found sometimes the best flaws are the ones, like in real life, are chosen randomly.  To build your hero around these flaws creates a fantastic experience and is where some really crazy cool stuff happens.

As an examples, in a Numenera game we played in, one of the worlds we translated into had everyone randomly roll mutations.  You could roll on multiple tables (minor mutations, major mutations, and super weird toxic horrible mutations - using creative license here).  I chose minor and the minimum major mutations I was allowed.  My character was... bland.  He had no memorable moments.  Another character picked some weird toxic horrible mutations - he was sickly and half-dying the entire adventure.  His character still sticks out in my mind.

Now imagine an entire game based around this "random flaw" theory.  My good friend, and super creative mad scientist, MVV (link to his blog here), created just such a game (which you can download for free here).  Essentially, the characters are rolled entirely randomly - and flaws of all sorts are highly encouraged. My first time playing, I played a Minotaur.  He died in the first encounter.  It was hilarious - and the party talked about feasting on Minotaur steaks for many adventures thereafter.  The game is all about over-the-top play - and we have had some amazing stories - primarily because the game fosters compelled courage. You don't care about dying - you care about playing your character to its randomly assigned crappiness.

Now, I am not saying that all games should always be out to kill the characters.  Having a character climb to a very high level can be a very rewarding experience and create many fantastic stories.  However, adding a little compelled courage and a real sense that the characters could, through no fault of their own, die - that makes for the types of stories you'll still be talking about years later.  I know there are plenty of ways to get there.  I believe flaws are one of those ways, and a way that I would encourage more people and game designers to experiment with.

1 I had randomly rolled on the suggested characteristic tables under the Sage background and then constructed a meaningful back-story based on these randomly picked personality, bonds, flaws, etc.  His flaw was #2 "Most people scream and run when they see a demon.  I stop and take notes..."  I spoke with the DM about my interpretation of this, which is that he is easily distracted and a bit naive (lowish wisdom compared to his intelligence) and so is easily oblivious to danger when in pursuit of a fascinating creature or phenomenon.  I must roll a wisdom saving throw every time I come across a new monster type I haven't seen before, if I fail, I simply start writing notes and examining it instead of taking more defensive/offensive strategies.  For this particular example - I rolled a 1. Critical fumble - a story teller's best friend.  Also, I should not that this whole concept owes itself to another good friend I game with, who creatively came up with this saving throw concept for his warlock character in another campaign.  A bit of homebrew rule making that, in my opinion, adds a fantastic layer of story laden mechanics to the game.  Disclaimer: Your mileage may vary.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Episodic Adventures

First, I will acknowledge that this is one of the least inspiring blog post titles ever.  Hopefully, inspiration will strike, and I will re-title this post in the coming days. (hm... does that count as a new blog post?)

In tabletop role-playing games, adventures tend to be split up into episodes.  Each adventure is its own self-contained story, but makes up a much larger story arc.  Some of these individual episodes are tightly bound together (such as a multi-level dungeon, in which the adventurers explore one level per game session), and others are more like a long running plot arc.  However, the episodic nature allows a full story to be told in the span on one session, while simultaneously providing the players with an overall sense of connecting adventure.  It is very much the way television shows tend to be distributed to the viewing public - bite sized chunks of a story every week, culminating in a grand "plot finale" and the obligatory "start of the new season" teaser.

Computer Role-Playing Games "sort of" do this too - but the issue tends to be pacing.  The "boss battle" is the CRPG version of the episode.  Finish the boss battle - okay time to go to bed.  The problem is that there is no grand director to make sure the adventure is on track and within the time limit.  Designers can only do so much to guesstimate average play times and design their levels to these estimated times.  Because players tend to (a) get off track (and this applies equally to table-top RPGs) and (b) try to pick up a game with less than the designed time (this tends to be a CRPG specific problem, but can apply to table-top RPGs as well), the episode system doesn't work as well.  In a table-top RPG, the GM can adjust on the fly to accommodate the party and keep them on track.  If the game starts late (i.e. pick up a game with less than the designed time), the GM can adjust the number of battles/encounters accordingly.  Designing a computer game to GM this type of flexibility is a lot harder.

While great advances in AI and computer game design have been made in the past 20 years, it has not even come close to a human GMed table-top adventure.  Someday, we may have an IBM Watson running a computer role-playing adventure.  However, until that day, it is my belief that computer game designers need to come up with some new design tricks specific to the platform.  At this point, many game designers are rolling their eyes and saying "Hey! That is what the <save game> function is, dummy."

My critique of the "save game" function is that it breaks the natural flow of the episode.  In a table-top RPG, the party may decide to stop at some point in what would normally be a one day adventure.  For whatever reason (they took too long at parts of the adventure, they started late, they rolled so poorly that a battle took twice as long as expected (Roll20 dice hate me), etc.), the players need to stop the game mid-way and so "save" the game for next session.  However, the GM can pick a natural stopping point and create two separate, logically concluding episodes (much like the dreaded to be continued... TV episodes).  In a computer role-playing game, the stopping point becomes a much more difficult issue.

There are two main types of "save games" for CRPGs - the Tomb Raider (speaking of the reboot) style checkpoint system, in which after specific "episodes" (usually of her solving some riddle) you are allowed to continue at the next portion of the story and the save anytime and anywhere system (like Baldur's Gate).  In between these extremes are many different variations.  I have a lot of respect for Tomb Raider's implementation.  It allows you to break off easy to manage "chunks" and come back later - although, not too much later or you're likely going to forget what the heck the main point was.  However, that is true for any game - even the tabletop RPGs.  The save anywhere system is the most disruptive, in that it stops the flow mid-way, and in my opinion does not allow the player "closure" on what is going on - unless they choose to save only at distinct points.  However, those distinct points tend to be spread pretty far apart, and thus brings one full circle back to the main issue, which is pacing.

I believe the checkpoint system could be effectively integrated into MMORPGs (which moving forward will be the main focus of this blog) and provide a more compelling experience for the players.  They key of course would be how to integrate this in with the multiplayer - and perhaps on multiplayer quests, this just isn't possible or feasible - in which case, is there a better way to create pacing for those players that can't devote five hours to solving a quest.  Perhaps breaking the quest into smaller component pieces and making each level of a dungeon (for example) a quest in and of itself.  You can then have agreement between the party members on whether they want to "go it alone" in the next level or wait for other party members to be able to do it.  Integrating character entrance and exits in this type of scenario would be the trickiest part, if you wanted to have a game reason for the change.  This brings me to a anecdotal tale:

I played in a tabletop campaign during a period of time when work was extremely busy and I was usually getting home after 9 p.m. (1/2 or 3/4ths into the adventure).  We came up with an "in game" way to allow me to pop into the game late.  I was a weird necromancer type character, and spent most of my time folded up in the backpack of the vampiress warlock.  The idea was he came up with a spell that allowed him to feed on the soul power of the dead to feed his spells, but the process made him a bit "bendy" (sort of stole the idea from he that shall not be named - from THAT book).  It really had no "in game" affect, except that it allowed me to explain both a source of my power and how it was I was able to just pop into the game (without using the old... DM runs as NPC bit).

Bringing those types of options to MMORPGs would open up many different possibilities and, I believe, enhance the role-playing potential.  It would also allow more options for pacing within the game to accommodate players' very different time commitments.  These concepts are some that I plan to think about closely as I work on my new project - an MMORPG, because as I will detail in a future post - you can never have enough of.

As always, thank you for reading.  May your virtual dice roller not get stuck rolling 1s.