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Author Topic: [D&D 3.5] (Dexcon) Final Fantasy and the Art of Railroad Maintenance  (Read 18572 times)
Bill_White
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« on: July 17, 2006, 06:29:15 PM »

My brother Mel, my buddy Dave, and I signed up to play in a D&D adventure at Dexcon 9 this past weekend.  It was called “Slaughterhouse of the August Moon,” (which ultimately had nothing to do with anything, as far as I could tell) and the blurb on the sign-up sheet went something like, “You are a samurai, a monk, a shugenja, a wu jen, and a ninja.  You have been summoned by the Emperor to serve his will.  Something is amiss on the frontiers of the Empire.  Will you be able to set it right?”  I think the blurb in the program (which I didn't see until afterward) was a little different: it intimated that one of the player-characters had a deep, dark secret, but that didn't emerge in play either.

We signed up because Mel has been itching to play some D&D again, and wanted some company; Dave and I obliged very willingly, because we hadn't played together the three of us in a long time.  We're all pushing or just past forty; the last time we'd all played together was maybe six years ago, a fantasy one-shot I ran using Fantasy Hero rules.

There was a fourth player sitting at the table when we got there; his name was Tyler and he was in his mid-20s; a quiet, affable regular guy.  The DM was there, too:  early twenties, a slender kid named Walter with a goatee and glasses.  His girlfriend Ann was sitting next to him, but she didn't play, though she did stay for a while, giggling appreciatively at appropriate occasions.  She left at one point, but had returned by the end of the session.  A fifth player showed up shortly after we began the adventure; I think her name was Maya:  small, dark-haired, twentyish.  I think she was wearing a short cloak, but that may just be my memory succumbing to my imagination.

We selected the pre-generated fifth level characters the DM had prepared:  I picked the shugenja, an elemental magician of water whose spells were of the healing variety.  Mel played the samurai.  Dave chose the monk.  Tyler picked the ninja, which left the wu jen (a fire magician) for Maya when she showed up.  Walter gave us our character sheets, and there was a short period during which the players scoped out the capabilities of their characters.  All I did was read up on the shugenja in a book called “The Complete Divine.”  I should note that the only character information we got was the game-mechanical stuff on the character sheet; we didn't get any additional “character background” or other descriptive information.

We began play in the throne room of the Emperor; we had all been summoned from our various walks of life because we were “the best at what we do.”  The Emperor told us that he was disturbed by rumors that his nephew, the lord of a domain on the frontiers of the Empire, had been said to be behaving irresponsibly.  Our mission was to find out what was going on and set it right.  We were given a letter sealed with the Imperial signet denoting our authority.  “I'll keep this,” I said.  No one objected.  “You are the one with the 18 Charisma,” Walter said.

We departed, noting the opulence of the Imperial palace, and mounted our horses, provided to us courtesy of the Emperor.  We had to make “Dex checks” to make sure we mounted successfully; luckily, we all succeeded (apparently, the characters had provided some amusement during the first run of the adventure by falling off their horses when mounting).  I will note for the sake of the rules-sticklish that I understand “attribute checks” of this sort to be non-kosher in D&D 3.x, and that we should have either made a Dex-based skill roll or Reflex save versus a Difficulty Class target number set by the GM.  I'm just telling you what we did.

Did we need to stock up on provisions or equipment?  “You're provisioned,” the DM said.  And we were off.  We traveled through the Imperial lands for a while until we came to the forest marking the boundary between the imperial domain and the territory of the nephew.

In the forest we were attacked by goblins, each of us getting charged by two of the creatures.  Those of us who made Listen checks heard the rustling in the underbrush just before they were  attacked.  We defeated them more or less handily (this was an encounter to familiarize us with our characters and their abilities.  We tried pretty hard to make it signify in the plot:  a possible threat to the Empire, a failure to adequately police the roads, but it didn't matter; it was just a random encounter) and our lack of equestrian ability didn't matter in the fight.

A little bit later, we had to make Will saves.  We called out our numbers, and Walter said, “And that's all I'm going to say about that.”  We would repeat this process at intervals throughout the adventure (it turned out to be the bad guy mind reading us in order to forestall our plans).

Emerging from the forest, we entered a village two or three days away from the nephew's palace; the village elder there offered to put us up for the night.  Questioning him, we learned that the people were more or less satisfied with the state of things, but they were all a little concerned because taxes had increased 50% over last year.  “Is he an accountant?” I asked, but no one heard me.  We also learned that the nephew (no one ever called him anything but “the nephew”) had a new seneschal who seemed to be taking charge of things.  Hmmm...pretty suspicious.

Approaching the castle and the surrounding town, but still some way off, we could make Spot checks.  The sharpest-eyed among us could see scaffolding up and down the towers of the nephew's pagoda.  Then we got a little closer, and the rest of us could see the scaffolding too.  A sign of profligate spending on the part of the seneschal?  Necessary improvements?  We would need more information!

We reigned up for a moment to discuss our approach to the palace.  I suggested that we send the ninja sneaking in the castle while we entered openly, claiming to be sent by the Emperor to report on the new construction.  As soon as we had settled upon this, we heard hooves in the road.  The ninja tried to hide, but failed his roll and so couldn't:  the castle guards found her and herded her back to us.  Then they escorted us to the castle.  There was some byplay about whether it was a good idea to resist them, but this was squelched when Walter informed us that they were very tough:  tenth level.  Remember, we were all fifth level.

“I thought we were the best at what we did,” said Mel.

“In your region,” Walter replied.

So they escorted us to the castle, where we saw more signs of busy construction, including a magical silver gate to replace the wooden doors of the castle.  It radiated abjuration magic.  We cooled our heels for a couple of hours in the waiting room until the seneschal called for us.  He told us that the nephew was the only one around here that he couldn't control, and had gone off to his summer palace with his guards, but no one could find it or knew where it was.  Behind his desk was a set of doors that were closed tight.  Hmmm...interesting.

After the seneschal was through stonewalling us, he invited us to wander around for a while before the big dinner with all the important captains and craftsmen and so forth.  The wu jen and I went to the library, where we noticed (I forget the roll we made; Spot, maybe?  It wasn't Search, though) “this world's version of Machiavelli's The Prince,” and a book called, “The Art of Disguise.”  Um, so the nephew believes in realpolitik?  Or the seneschal does?  And is somebody in disguise?  (This was a clue of sorts:  the seneschal turned out to be a doppleganger with psionics and levels in a prestige class called something like “spymaster” or “mindfucker” or something like that.  So the “'clue”wasn't causally connected to what was going on; it was clue by the power of suggestion, or perhaps metonymy).  The samurai went to check out the barracks of the nephew's personal guard; it was sealed up tight and no one knew anything about where they were.  The monk went to the dungeons, but there were no prisoners.  Note that the library was the only location that Walter mentioned as being explicitly available for us to visit.  The ninja was going to leave the castle and come sneaking back in to the castle to check out those mysterious doors behind the seneschal's desk while the seneschal was having dinner with us.

But he didn't do it.  Walter told us, “When you go to dinner, the ninja is there,” and took him aside to explain what had happened.  Apparently, he got caught by the guards and escorted back again.

At the dinner, those of us who made Listen rolls managed to overhear the seneschal saying, “Nephew incompetent...Emperor not much better.”

Retiring to our rooms, we decided that the remarks were treason, and so we'd confront the seneschal immediately and arrest him.

But we couldn't do it.  We were really tired, Walter told us, and needed to go to bed.  “Okay,” I said, “I'd like to confront this traitor to the Empire, but [big mock yawn-and-stretch] I'm really tired, so I'm just going to bed.”

We got to make Listen rolls at -10 and failed badly, so I woke up screaming having taken 22 points of damage (I had maybe 36 in total).  A shadowy figure darted out the window.  The samurai rushed to the window but couldn't see any sign of him; he tried to follow but couldn't (wasn't allowed to).

A few minutes later the seneschal comes in, trailed by guards.  He apologizes for the attack, and offers the services of a healer.  “I don't need a healer,” I tell him.  The samurai presents the seneschal his sword so that the latter canl use it to commit seppuku to atone for the shame of allowing us to be attacked in his castle.  The seneschal is nonplussed.

I brandish the Emperor's letter.  “You're a traitor, and you're under arrest.  Come with us now; we're taking you to the Emperor.”

“Let me go back to my office and get something.”

“No.  Come with us now.”

He refuses.  “Guards,” I say.  “I speak with the voice of the Emperor.  Seize this man!”

They refuse.

“You're under arrest, too!”

The samurai attacks the seneschal.  The seneschal bolts.

We chase him!  “Guards!  Seize him!”  They're comatose.

He makes it to his office, where his desk and the doors are.  The doors into the room close behind us, and we fight.  He's hard to hit, but we get our licks in.  He hits me a few times and I'm down:  -1 hit points.

“I'm dead.,” I say.  Walter asks me how many hp I have and I tell him.

“You're dying,” he corrects me, and has me make a Fortitude roll.  “You've stabilized,” he says.

The next round I get to make another Fortitude save, and I'm at 0 hit points.  The round after that, I make another one and I'm at 1 and back on my feet.  Note:  I'm pretty sure this procedure is not in the rules as written, anywhere.  I heal the samurai, who's been taking boatloads of damage.

The DM calls for Listen checks, and the monk makes his.  He hears a thumping coming from the doors behind the desk.  He disengages from the seneschal and heads for the doors.  Just as he reaches them, they burst open and a proud but bedraggled figure rushes forth, sword in hand, grabs the seneschal by the throat and stabs him through the heart.  The end.

“What did you think?” asked Walter.  “How did you like the adventure?”  Dave, Mel, and I are conspicuously silent.  Mel gets up from the table.

“Uh oh,” Walter said.

“I have a few questions,” I told him.  “Why did you design the adventure so that an NPC got to take down the bad guy instead of us?”

Walter told us that he was a big believer in the Big Bad at the end of an adventure, and that we had in fact got the seneschal down to zero hit points.  This triggered the nephew's adventure-ending arrival. 
Huh.

In thinking about this adventure and telling the story to other people, the analysis that I've come up with is that Walter designed his adventure specifically to conform to the conventions of videogame CRPG design.  The arrival of the nephew was a cut scene, triggered by our whittling down of a Big Bad's hit points.  The closing of the doors behind us as we arrived served only to signal that we'd arrived at that point (I've played enough Final Fantasy to recognize that when the doors close behind you, you've gotten to the unavoidable encounter).  The adventure had to end with the fight taking place in the office, so that the cut scene could happen.  The whole adventure was designed to get us to that one scene.

One of the people I told this story to at Dexcon said, “There have been enormous advances in rules over the past twenty years, but adventure design has stood still.”  And I think that's true.  And it's possible that adventure design has even regressed:  ironically, the retarded child of tabletop roleplaying has come to serve as a model for its progenitor, unnecessarily taking on its constraints in order to emulate the experience of roleplaying with a limited menu of options.

All in all, an interesting experience.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #1 on: July 17, 2006, 07:19:32 PM »

As much as I'm appaled, here's a provocative question in his favour: If you had been playing a final fantasy computer game, would it have bothered you if the same thing happened?

I've played a few CRPG's and in terms of me, I wouldn't be bothered. But I'm pretty sure that's because I have absolute control over the computer and game - I can turn it off at will. That way I know it's not manipulating and controlling me, rather, I'm humouring whatever it produces. However, with another human - I can't turn them off. Note: I'm pretty sure that's why, despite the many flaws of fighting fantasy books, I still feel an attraction to them as well. But if I were to actually have a GM run something like them...

Would it as negative if it happened to you while playing a computer game?
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Andrew Morris
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« Reply #2 on: July 17, 2006, 07:22:14 PM »

Interesting indeed, Bill.

Quote from: Bill White
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Bill_White
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« Reply #3 on: July 17, 2006, 07:26:12 PM »

Callan -- No, in a CRPG I get it.  In Final Fantasy, the cut-scene is a little bit of eye-candy to reward you for playing it out:  Put down your controller and watch.  Awesome!  On the tabletop, there is no reward involved.  The "cut scene" amounts merely to heavy-handed deprotagonization.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I don't want to talk trash about the DM; he was doing his best to give us a game that he thought we'd like--the only way he knew how.
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Bill_White
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« Reply #4 on: July 17, 2006, 07:29:26 PM »

Andrew --

How did they get comatose?  The in-SIS explanation had to have been something like, "He was mind controlling them and when he lost his concentration, their brains were (temporarily, maybe) fried."  The reason they went comatose was that the DM's vision of the final conflict was The Party vs. the Big Bad.  In his head, the guards weren't part of the picture.
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Andrew Morris
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« Reply #5 on: July 17, 2006, 07:47:32 PM »

How did Tyler feel about the game? Was he all for it, or did he agree with your points?
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Bill_White
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« Reply #6 on: July 17, 2006, 08:01:52 PM »

He enjoyed the game, but stuck around for debriefing the DM and later told me, "Yeah, I agree with you."  But Tyler had a much cooler game going on in his head than the one that happened at the table; he was imagining that his character might have been mind controlled to stab me, for example, until it was revealed that, no, the seneschal did it.
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Rob Donoghue
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« Reply #7 on: July 17, 2006, 08:06:13 PM »

That is a skill I must develop for cons that are not Dexcon. Create a whole new category of "Virtual Play"

"Huh? The game? Oh, it sucked, but the one in my head was _Totally Awesome_!"

-Rob D.
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Andrew Morris
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« Reply #8 on: July 17, 2006, 08:17:27 PM »

Bill, did you get the sense that Tyler enjoyed the game because that's what he's used to? Was there a silent "...but what can you do?" after his "Yeah, I agree with you..."?
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Nathan P.
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« Reply #9 on: July 17, 2006, 08:27:30 PM »

I think that this story is cool because it illustrates that there's usually, if not always, a cool idea at the core of something crappy.

Like, how about a CRPG-inspired game where you (the players) outline some cool cut scenes on index cards, and then on the other side you write trigger conditions. Then, when those trigger conditions happen, you flip over the card and narrate the scene in the context of however the game is going. That would be neat.

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Nathan P.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: July 17, 2006, 08:42:18 PM »

Hi there,

My favorite part is the "you're tired, you're going to bed" bit. Why? So I can have someone sneak into your room and stab you!

But this is the part that caught my eye, because it's sort of a specific spot or hinge we might use to open things up a little.

Quote
The wu jen and I went to the library, where we noticed (I forget the roll we made; Spot, maybe?  It wasn't Search, though) “this world's version of Machiavelli's The Prince,” and a book called, “The Art of Disguise.”  Um, so the nephew believes in realpolitik?  Or the seneschal does?  And is somebody in disguise?  (This was a clue of sorts:  the seneschal turned out to be a doppleganger with psionics and levels in a prestige class called something like “spymaster” or “mindfucker” or something like that.  So the “'clue”wasn't causally connected to what was going on; it was clue by the power of suggestion, or perhaps metonymy).

I remember talking with Paul Czege about this stuff waaaay back when. The GM points at something, significantly, often tagging it with a roll so you know it's a big deal. Or says something like "the shoes aren't lined up," with a bad poker face on the front of his head. But the thing's content is simply opaque. It can't make sense without another batch of information, which is totally not coming.

I also remember fighting my way out of using such things when I was GMing a lot of Champions, even farther back when. At least from my viewpoint at the time, it was a weird cross between (a) linking up lots of supportive detail in the story that I fancied would "make sense" upon the big revelation to come later, and (b) an actual clue that was supposed to prompt action or somehow facilitate the big revelation.

Yet I couldn't do (b) without "giving it away," so such things ultimately became a whole lot of (a) ... and the more (a) it all became, the more the plot events and twists relied on me pushing the characters into place, or perhaps pulling them, psychologically, via hinting and signalling the players to put them in place.*

You know what I thought was the hyper-uber sign of the Great GM, back then? The ability to pace it all and to cut to the chase, without wasting time. Granted, that was a skill compared to the endless, droning, session-after-session of nothing while a GM chortled quietly to himself about how it would all make sense one day, and God help us all, fantasized about the novel he would one day convert all this role-playing into. A punchy story in two-three hours felt like a hell of an accomplishment, by comparison, especially if it had pacing and rising action and all that stuff.

But I was trapped by habits like this kind of pseudo-clue. I couldn't give the revelation away before it was time! But they had to have information to act on! But I couldn't just give it away! But they need something to do, and a random attack/fight totally sucks! But ...

Well anyway. It was that sort of thing that led me to think more in terms of Kickers and Bangs, much later, and ultimately, more recently, I think that raw Situation is becoming more central to RPG design among at least a few of us. It's a perfect example of a Technique that exists (I think) practically only as a compensating feature, and not even a very strong one, of a fundamentally screwy approach to play - specifically, Typhoid Mary as discussed in the Narrativism essay.

Best, Ron

* "Push" and "pull" are used here only in this post's context, and the use has nothing to do with the current discussion of the words elsewhere.
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Mark Woodhouse
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« Reply #11 on: July 18, 2006, 06:46:57 AM »

I couldn't give the revelation away before it was time! But they had to have information to act on! But I couldn't just give it away! But they need something to do, and a random attack/fight totally sucks! But ...
Word. I remember one particular campaign that trained me into this. Backstory is that I like to use these kind of 'clue that isn't a complete clue' things as a sort Rorschach Blot - I hand the players some pieces that don't add up to anything by themselves, then mine their frantic attempts to make sense of them for ideas. So, I wander into a group with a couple players who come from the 'chain of breadcrumbs' school. They recognize the incompleteness of my clues, but rather than hypothesize about what the clues might mean and give me ideas, they assume that more clues or a cut scene are forthcoming. I offer them a few more pieces... but make sure not to frame in a 'right answer', because that would be railroading. They patiently wait for the answer.

You can see where this is going. It's amazing how much more fun gaming is when you talk about these expectations with people up front.
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Bill_White
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« Reply #12 on: July 18, 2006, 07:02:56 AM »

Bill, did you get the sense that Tyler enjoyed the game because that's what he's used to? Was there a silent "...but what can you do?" after his "Yeah, I agree with you..."?

From something he said, it seemed like he was used to less heavy-handed use of force on the part of the GM.  Something like, "If I didn't want players to attack the guards, I would have just reminded them of how much trouble they'd get into," or something along those lines.  I can't really speak to the source of his enjoyment, though I like to think that it had something to do with our really cool roleplaying.  I mean, there was high drama:  "You're under arrest!  Come with us now!"  He showed up later at the Indie Publishing Roundtable, so I think he may be exploring how to get what he really wants from roleplaying.  But I don't know:  I'm just making sense of patterns.
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Bill_White
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« Reply #13 on: July 18, 2006, 07:15:02 AM »

I think that this story is cool because it illustrates that there's usually, if not always, a cool idea at the core of something crappy.

Like, how about a CRPG-inspired game where you (the players) outline some cool cut scenes on index cards, and then on the other side you write trigger conditions. Then, when those trigger conditions happen, you flip over the card and narrate the scene in the context of however the game is going. That would be neat.

Yeah, okay.  I can see that.  But I think it only works as a concept in cases where you're letting the GM keep a lot of control over the narrative, so that power to narrate becomes a kind of reward in itself.  Otherwise, the normal flow of the game is that the players are narrating stuff all the time.

But it is intriguing...
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Robert Bohl
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« Reply #14 on: July 18, 2006, 08:57:13 AM »

Bill,

I find this game fascinating.  I think it was GMed by the guy who ran Napkin Girl at the last DexCon I went to, which had its own issues to talk about (threads exist on this already).  Would you have been comfortable telling the GM during the game that you felt overly controlled and deprotagonized?  I think you were trying to give him hints with some of the jokes you made.
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