Sandboxes, pacing, improvisation and expectations: part 2: your players are unique snowflakes a.k.a. psychographics are lame

All the posts in the serie here.

Picking up where I left last time

This post was supposed to be about players psychographics and what drives them and how to deal with that but the topic has been discussed, dissected & bled dry so many times I don’t feel the need to even go near it.

Instead I’d like to go meta on that and spend a couple of words on the relationship between your players and your game. If this sounds like utter poppycock to you, leave a comment:

  • they’re all different: different people means different needs means different things they get out of playing, and different ways of moving in social spaces. If you’re friends with them, cherish the thought that you know how to handle them in meatspace and realize that it takes great people to completely separate what happen in game and what happens around the table, because by its own nature of gamespace is subversive and used to behave in ways not possible in real life. Don’t pidgeonhole players in the usual G/N/S or whichever taxonomy they invented this month: as you have 5-10 people and not 5-10 hundred thousand, you can afford to treat them as unique snowflakes. This allows you to put treats and challenges in your game for all of them. It’s not so much work…
  • on a more general level, in all games, but in RPGs evermore so, every participant is perfectly able to spoil the fun of everyone else, so partially responsible for everyone else’s fun. Don’t play with dicks, and don’t be a dick yourself. This applies even more in sandboxes as there’s no shame involved with derailing the plot, killing important NPCs or torching villages.
  • ask them for feedback: what makes them tick and what ticks them off about how you and other players play. There are some games I’ve run lately which seemed totally lame to me but, after soliciting feedback from my players, were great fun. To get better you need to learn from your errors and your successes, but to tell them apart you need feedback. Also, when things happen at the table take a note (mental or otherwise) of how people react: feedback asked might be not totally genuine for a number of reasons, so understanding how they react to events is very important. Think ethnographer.
  • you’ll see patterns of behaviour: for example, my group never scouts any location. Never ever, and their retinue has a number of rogues. Yours might always scrutinize every corner of every room for treasure, or they might always play wiseguy with all NPCs. If and how you want to use this knowledge as DM is up to you: plot is a metagame element usually absent from sandboxes (at least in its traditional sense of “predetermined string of events that are the focus of the attention”) but you can always metagame in other directions.
  • knowing what they want is easy: ask them! They probably don’t need exactly what they want, but it can be a nudge in the right direction. In general in a sandbox they’ll pursue activities they like (think Pavlov’s dog) and avoid what they don’t, so if they never scout it might be because they don’t like it or because they don’t like falling back or running away (also known as: I’m insecure and I don’t want to fail also in gamespace).

So, yes, you created your world and it’s a shining and beautiful gem but to remember to think of how your end users will interact with it.

How I learnt not to suck at running games

I remember my first RPG session: I ran S. Andre’s Amulet of the Salkti for a bunch of classmates in primary school. It tanked: as I was basically the only one that was up for running games I didn’t have much to learn from so I kept on tanking for years, improving slowly. After a while I learnt that with what we would now call hexcrawls peppered with published adventures players enjoyed more (and allowed me to sneak in locations and plots if I felt inspired or simply rolled up something myself).

Fast forward a few years, there’s a single piece of writing that changed the way I run games: Roleplaying Tips’ Session Checklist (second part here).

Go. Read both parts. Come back.

Ok, it’s not that mind shattering. But I realized three things:

First: I had a list I just needed to fill in to have enjoyable sessions.The first adventure I ran with this was a campaign reboot (why the campaign needed a reboot is a nice topic for another post) and the players were glowing. It almost never happened before. The following adventures were the same. Maybe it works for me because I just needed a “metagaming crutch” to make my games better: perhaps with more significant encounters, maybe because it’s focused towards the game user model.

Second: my left-sided brain realized that a GM is at the same time a content creator, an entertainer and an MC. GMs have to put adventure materials together, make a nice session out of them and keep the evening enjoyable and with a nice rhythm. Players have great responsibilities and RPGs are no democracy, but instant recall is always an option.

Third: you can’t get better than content created specifically for players. Sure, engaging all the PCs is good (I see it as a failure if it doesn’t happen) but I feel that engaging  and entertaining all the players is the holy grail of RPGs (and downright impossible with a new group). Forget about deep plots, coherent settings, verosimile NPCs if players want gonzo sandboxes filled with ducks and flumph civilizations.

User Experience is King.

Sandboxes, pacing, improvisation and expectations: part 1

I’m going to deconstruct a bit the process I use to build a sandbox, starting from last session. It will take a number of posts because there are plenty of things to write about.

All the posts in the serie here.

This is what happened last session, in about four-five hours:

  • after meeting a basilisk last session, they’re left with a couple of statues of people from their huge menagerie of henchmen, followers and fanboys.
  • so they decide to go and get some trees up the mountains (they’re in a rocky desert/badland type area by some less desertic mountains where actually trees happen to grow).
  • they go up and they kinda totally stumble in a giant rattlesnake. Ms Wyslosky, the badassest fighting-person of the party (follower of one of the two wizards) gets bitten three times before dispatching the reptile. Then fails three saves out of three and die horribly.
  • they manage to make a raft to bring the statues (and themselves) to the nearest city. I forgot to mention to you, reader, that there is a canyon in the desert with a river at the bottom. I also forgot to mention that they’ve never seen any boat on it. On the way some of them fall off the raft (rapids, aha) but they manage not to die or to lose anything except a copied spellbook due to water damage.
  • then they meet a bunch of naiads. Somehow the reaction roll is stupidly high so the nixies are friendly and don’t enslave all of them, instead the leader (Lily) introduces them to their which-queen, which returns the statues to meatyness. Since they can’t pay the queen asks somebody to be left there in slavery: they talk one of their henchmen (an ex-petrified halfling) to hang out with tens of hot water-nymphs. I foresee death by snu-snu for chubby here. Party begs the queen for informations about who could resurrect their friend, which tells them about someone in the desert, the entrance of his place sealed by a stone slab with complex engravings in some forgotten language, and another guy living way upstream by the river, up in the mountains, guarding a mausoleum all by itself by a ruined tower (the word “mausoleum” evokes bad memories to my players). They decide for the latter as the which mention the former is way more inhospitable, but she still thinks that they will get no help.
  • they get back to the Unís, the big merchant city, and don’t find anybody to raise their companion. Duh, magic is banned there, unless you’re a Templar. Templars are a cross between civil servants, secret services and commando troops rolled into one badass corp that hang out in a castle on top of a craig by the city harbour, and they bow just to the Queen. The Queen of Unís has been on the throne for hundreds of years and doesn’t really appear in public. None of the PCs are templars (in this campaign), so no special ju-ju fo them, but they find an experienced mercenary that accepts to go with them (for twice the normal pay).
  • They start walking upstream and meet a flying wizard. After another awesome reaction roll it turns out that, yes, the wizard is actually looking for apprentices and tells the pc the location of his tower before flying away.
  • going upstream they reach a waterfall, try to give a look behind it but don’t manage to due to the strength of the river.
  • they are ambushed by a bunch of grunge elves. No, not those from HackMaster, just grungy elves. Fight is hard but the party overcome the challenge and manage to find their treehouse due to a lucky charme person. And Loot was had.

All of this hauling around the body of the fallen in a barrel full of brine.

Now, 10 encounters in 5 hours. None of this was planned. They all enjoyed. Most things were rolled on the fly using the expert box or Kellri’s netbook or based upon existing knowledge.

I have to go and continue the session now. Next post will be about expectations.

custom tailored challenges: a case of nested social contracts

Oddysey at How to Start a Revolution in 21 Days or Less goes over a number of interesting points about combat. She made me think much about the aesthetic of RPG combat aspects and why we still have the “problem” of uninteresting fights (more about this later).

One of her conclusions, that in some games players like fights because that’s where “the fun” is, strikes true on a group recovering from years of d20 campaigns. ECLs and CRs are there to hint at what a “bespoke challenge” for players is, in a way justifying the inclusion of the fight in the adventure as some kind of social pact: players know that the DM will have put in the adventure plot/locales fights that the group can actually not just overcome “somehow”, with tricks and smarts, but also with the use of violence.

Players will hopefully be in “flux zone”, struggling and ultimately succeeding (winning) their fights, while the GM will have satisfied players: a clear win-win situation. This is possible because RPGs support well the use of violence, with clear rules, but the same could apply to any reliable system to handle challenge. Reliable game mechanics support entwines with reliable custom-made content to ensure that all challenges are approachable by the party.

I’d go further on and say that this kind of gaming leads to different options like retreating, parlay and outsmarting the opponent stopping being meaningful because they’re more complex, more unpredictable, more like hard work than simply doing it the “right” way. More like “The game master prepared us a nice (and safe) way to handle the situation, why bother looking for something risky?”.

This is pure railroading: not in the plot-space but in the ludeme-space (as in “the base elements constituting a game”). But the usual culprit, the Demiurge-GM, this time is not entirely at fault (as if we are entitled to speak of fault) as the players want to win he (mostly) wants to create interesting worlds full of interesting people to kill and plots for players to follow.

How did I ever manage to end up in this situation? How did we?

For years, my problem has been perceived lack of player goodwill. I didn’t feel I could afford to disappoint them and to make them feel insecure that we would have a good time playing together. So I created a safe environment for them to play in.

Safety is, for me, a defining element in games. I roughly define games as some kind of “magic circle” where a social contract is in effect: players can behave in given ways and, if they do, their actions bear no consequence whatsoever on the outside of our little “magic circle”.

Inside the game there is no need for a safe environment as the game itself is already a safe environment.

Do we really need that? Do we really need assurance that our PCs will not horribly die? Do we really need a special world within a special world to ensure that the players won’t wreck the campaign world?

What are we going to lose? Security and reliability.

And what are we renouncing to? We’re limiting ourselves to the known and the acceptable. We’re renouncing emergency. Emergent campaign plots in game worlds filled with unknowns, there just to be explored. Not just unknown settings, but also unknown ways of playing.

The Holy Grail of RPGs or, if you want, how they came to be. Braunstein, Blackmoor and Greyhawk are results of broken social contracts.