Trollbabe-ish setup lacking drama

Started by Paul T, July 26, 2009, 05:08:26 PM

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Paul T

About two months ago, I ran a one-session game using a simple homebrew ruleset based on Vincent Baker's Otherkind dice idea, designed specifically for three players.

(Here's a link, if you want to look, but I don't think it's necessary to the discussion: http://ihousenews.pbworks.com/Playset-Zero)

I was the GM; the two players were a couple who are friends of mine. The guy had some roleplaying experience in his past; his girlfriend did not, but was interested in the idea (especially since she loves computer RPGs).

I used what I'm going to refer to as a "Trollbabe-ish" setup. I'm putting it in quotes, because I'm not entirely sure of the term's accuracy. I've never read the Trollbabe text, and I've only played one session of Trollbabe.

So, here's what I'm using the term as a shorthand for:

* There is a relationship map; a small society of NPCs that have a bit of a tangled web (about 5-6 important NPCs).
* Certain NPCs have done bad things to others in the recent past, so the current situation is one where most NPCs have reasonable grudges against the others.
* I've outlined what each NPC wants, and how the PCs could help them achieve those goals.
* The status quo is tense but stable--no one has a clear upper hand against anyone else.
* The PCs are outsiders, coming in from the outside, and their presence unstabilizes the situation, as any given NPC could easily reach their goals by enlisting the PCs in their current plans.

Again, I'm not sure how close this is to a Trollbabe scenario; it's just based on my limited understanding of how that game works.

The actual scenario was a crew of treasure hunters stuck on an island, in a sort of "17th-century pirate adventure" genre/setting. Half the crew had mutinied, and so the inhabitants of the island were split into two camps. Someone was sabotaging the ship, so no one could get off the island without breaking off hostilities. The two PCs were total outsiders, washing ashore on the island, and literally walking into the midst of the situation. The idea behind all this was to get straight into the game, without the need for an infodump or any discussion of the setting, etc. (The players, in particular the girlfriend, chose the "pirate" theme.)

The game wasn't unenjoyable, but I was kind of surprised by the lack of "stuff" happening. Both players got into it pretty quickly, playing up their characters and willingly playing towards their flaws (each character had a "problematic" feature). We played for about two hours before we had to split (somewhat unexpectedly), and had a good time.

However, I was left a little unsatisfied, because until the very end of the session there was very little action. The players walked around the island, talking to various NPCs, and trying to get to the bottom of things. When NPCs urged them to act, even with significant pressure, the players always held back, waiting until they had some more information. The result was that it felt like I was the only one talking for the first hour or hour and a half. They would ask a question, I would describe scenery and speak through the NPCs. Since there was little conflict, the dice weren't really used during that period. Once they had a bit more of a grasp over what was going on, and as I kept piling on the pressure, the dice came out and things began to spin up quite quickly. Unfortunately, that was towards the very end of the session.

The players both had a good time and want to play again. And I have no doubt that had the session been three or four hours, it would have been great, action-filled, and satisfying.

However, I'm curious about others' methods for using this kind of setup but getting things to happen more quickly. I would have liked to get to some more active participation from the players earlier on. (Actually, I'm almost tempted to say "from the characters", since the players seemed very engaged; they just held off on their characters diving into things until they had a better idea of what the situation was.)

Is it a sign that the situation was too ambiguous or too complex? Or simply a question of the players getting used to the procedures of play?

Or perhaps I should have framed to conflict more directly, giving them what seemed like a fairly unambiguous conflict, and only revealing the "other side" and any moral ambiguity once they got embroiled in it? I hesitate to use this kind of approach because it can feel a little like a railroaded scenario: "Ha! But, now that you've rescued her from prison, it turns the princess is really the villain! Got you!"

What kinds of techniques do you use (specifically in games like Trollbabe, or may also DitV) to get some action happening up front?

I'd like to be able to use this kind of setup within a one- or two-hour time frame as a "demo" or "introduction" to roleplaying for folks new to gaming.

Thanks for reading,


Paul


Ron Edwards

I'm leaving aside all mention of Trollbabe, because your description deviates from that game's setup in an important way.

Everything that follows should be understood as an educated guess. I wasn't there. If anything or all of what I say doesn't fit, disregard it; I do not claim to be scrying your game.

The issue here is simple: you didn't play your NPCs. You used them as data-drops or some kind of intended stimulus to the players, and that's not enough.

Consider the words I've bolded in these two sentences:

QuoteThe PCs are outsiders, coming in from the outside, and their presence unstabilizes the situation, as any given NPC could easily reach their goals by enlisting the PCs in their current plans.

Quote... until the very end of the session there was very little action. The players walked around the island, talking to various NPCs, and trying to get to the bottom of things. When NPCs urged them to act, even with significant pressure, the players always held back, waiting until they had some more information.

I'm trying to point to the notion that instead of you playing your characters and them playing theirs, you tried to play their characters through the medium of them deciding to act upon your prompting.

Or another way to put it is, given the presence of the newcomers, one or more of the NPCs should have launched into action of his or her own. All your NPCs did was try to get the player-characters to do stuff. None of them did stuff because of the player-characters' mere presence.

As an easy example, NPC X talks to the player-characters and asks for some help. NPC Y, who hates X, sees it or learns of it, and acts to pre-empt the possible agreement or sympathy that had formed. Never mind whether it did or didn't form - Y hates X so much that he or she is convinced that whatever was said, it was to his or her disadvantage. Meanwhile, because the player-characters said "Thanks but no thanks, we'll talk to some other people, then get back to you," X is chewing his or her fingernails with frustration - and decides that the player-characters better get taken out, before they (of course, obviously) are going to ally with Y against him or her.

X and Y, each suitably armed and allied, each acting in what he or she thinks is self-interest, appear to kill or take down these "troublemakers," and it so happens they arrive to do so at the same time.

One mild conversation. Next scene, one savage three-cornered fight.

Is there some reason you GMed like some kind of weird flea market, in which the player-characters got to wander around at leisure, soaking up information and having no particular urgency descend upon them? Why were your NPCs so passive?

Best, Ron

Noclue

What Ron said. This is "pirate" Yojimbo. Go watch that movie and see how long the titular ronin has to wander about town before he's up to his topknot in shit. Of course, the ronin walks in there with big bad mofo painted across his back, so everyone HAS to have him on their side, or on no one's.

Basically you set up a situation in which the PCs washed up on the island wanting...not sure, but by implication something like "to stay out of trouble and eventually get back home." Your NPCs wanted the PCs to join their side. When the PCs didn't join their side the NPCs let them keep staying out of trouble. That makes for bland games of walking around looking at the scenery.

Now, if your NPCs wanted something before the PCs got there and were in the process of going after it, then the PCs would be a threat if they didn't join up. So, if NPC1 assumed the PCs were joining NPC2, and NPC2 assumed that they were joining up with NPC1...well, you see how things can get hotted up pretty quick.
James R.

Paul T

Those are some very good points, both.

I think there were two things in play:

1. The players were pretty careful about forestalling NPC action. For instance, they pretended to go along with NPCs' plans (on both sides), then kept gently, carefully delaying actually carrying out those plans. They would agree to go somewhere with an NPC, say, and then stall at the last minute, withholding help where they had promised it for as long as possible. They were generally accomodating, understanding, and friendly, trying to forestall conflict until they felt they knew which side to take.

This worked overall: as soon as both sides collided, seeing that things had not gone as planned, then sure enough, the shit went flying. However, it didn't get there quite as quickly as I'd hoped.

2. I was very tired that night, and had some trouble concentrating on the game, which made me feel like I had a million NPCs and bits of backstory to keep straight in my head. I'd also not prepared quite as much as I'd hoped, so I was trying not to contradict myself; trying to keep things straight. As though it took all my attention just to do the usual GM descriptive stuff and act out the NPC roles, not leaving enough "brain power" to say, "And then, so-and-so bursts through the door!"

I'm curious if either of you can suggest some tricks for making a scenario like this pop into action more quickly.

Do you:

* Set up the NPCs and scenario so that they will, by default, have strong, volatile reactions to the PCs, right off the bat? (For instance, the PCs walk into a tribe's village, unknowingly carrying the sign of a forbidden god; the princess believes one of the PCs is her long-lost love, etc.)

* Set up the scenario so that when the PCs arrive, they arrive in the middle of the action? (For example, the two sides are in the middle of a firefight, someone throws a PC a stick of burning dynamite, shouting to throw it over the wall already)

* Choose more forceful, desperate actions on the part of the NPCs? (They're not convinced I'm right? Then I'd better lock them up!)

That last one sounds like what you're suggesting, in terms of NPC actions. Does that mean you must include more volatile, headstrong NPCs in your relationship map, or does it just flow naturally for you?

To me, in the heat of the game, it felt unnatural to act so rashly on behalf of an NPC I basically considered a reasonable and careful planner, especially in response to PCs who were generally helpful and agreeable to his plans, even if not perfectly so.

(Even so, I pushed the players around a fair bit, including insults, orders (e.g. taking away the two PCs' weapons), and even had one of the PCs handcuffed and locked up. But they still didn't react too strongly until a little later, even to that.)

I'm curious what kinds of elements of situational setup tend to make that sort of thing pop a little more.

Or was I just being too weak on the GM-side, from lack of energy and a fear or pushing it too far too fast?

I'm also curious to hear what significant element of the Trollbabe scenario setup I've missed, but I'm guessing that might be a little off-topic. Does it relate to this line of conversation?

(Meanwhile, I'm going to see if I can get some feedback from the players, too, and will post it if I hear from them.)


Noclue

Quote from: Paul T on July 27, 2009, 03:11:44 AM
For instance, they pretended to go along with NPCs' plans (on both sides), then kept gently, carefully delaying actually carrying out those plans. They would agree to go somewhere with an NPC, say, and then stall at the last minute, withholding help where they had promised it for as long as possible. They were generally accomodating, understanding, and friendly, trying to forestall conflict until they felt they knew which side to take.
I think your island may have a bad case of the respectabilities. Your NPCs have lots of choices that they could be making. As an example, you could stick pistol in their friendly, accomodating hands and demand that they kill a captive to prove their loyalty. Or, when they don't show up to to accompany the NPC he could decide that they had switched sides and send some muscle to kill em (or just hurt them a little). I think fleshing out your NPC's personalities, and giving them different but equally active methods for problem solving would have helped. Say, one dude is cold and ruthlessly calculating. Make the leader of the other side paranoid and given to fits of violent rage. Or whatever. Just as long as they don't simply stand there waiting for the PCs to decide shit.

As for your suggested strategies:

Quote* Set up the NPCs and scenario so that they will, by default, have strong, volatile reactions to the PCs, right off the bat? (For instance, the PCs walk into a tribe's village, unknowingly carrying the sign of a forbidden god; the princess believes one of the PCs is her long-lost love, etc.)
Something like that might work nicely.

Quote* Set up the scenario so that when the PCs arrive, they arrive in the middle of the action? (For example, the two sides are in the middle of a firefight, someone throws a PC a stick of burning dynamite, shouting to throw it over the wall already)
This would get to the action quickly, but at the expense of player buy-in, I think.

Quote* Choose more forceful, desperate actions on the part of the NPCs?
This. Yes, this.

QuoteThat last one sounds like what you're suggesting, in terms of NPC actions. Does that mean you must include more volatile, headstrong NPCs in your relationship map, or does it just flow naturally for you?
Yes to both questions. Though, they don't have to be volatile. They have to want something and then you have to play them going about getting what they want as best they can.
James R.

Ron Edwards

Hi Paul,

I am concerned with a number of your phrases which suggest to me that you are not seeing the genuine issue. I can only address them as a whole by saying, "There is no trick involved." I don't think that what you're looking for is achieved by leading or tricking or influencing players. I think that entire viewpoint should be abandoned by you, and I don't know if you even know you're holding it.

Let me lay out this line of dialogue.

A: "My players didn't do anything and artfully dodged all my NPCs' actions and pleas to get them to do something."

B: "Ah, that's easy: have the NPCs stick guns in their faces and make them do something."

or B': "Ah, that's easy: have the NPCs express points of view which tap right into the players' personal needs and therefore the players will have no emotional choice except to take action."

I am suggesting that both B and B' are buying into A's already-flawed outlook, and that their solutions only dig deeper into a hole. The flaw lies in what I tried to articulate briefly in my first post: that if you are GMing with the assumption, or plan, that you are going to make or lead the players into doing things, then you are already engaged in a power struggle with no real good outcome. I mean, even if they are made or led into doing stuff, so what? Are you really interested in GMing like a hand-puppeteer forever? Are they really "your" players? I suggest that they are not; they are their own players, and so are you.

C: "Keep playing your NPCs to the hilt for their own reasons and interests and have what happens, happen."

Funny, this goes all the way back to your old threads, [Unknown Armies] Am I driving with Bangs? and Is this Forcing? Maybe those are due for a re-read, if you can get past some of the static of the various posts in the latter.

If you truly let go of trying to make or lead, then you also have to let go of the idea that you are the Fun God of the session. If they have the option to do 'do nothing' and skulk about strategizing forever and a day, then two legitimate outcomes are possible which are best described as Sucks to Be You. (i) The NPCs go ahead and take action of their own, up to and including shooting the player-characters in the head. (ii) Nothing particularly interesting happens in regard to the player-characters and the NPCs settle their issues among one another while the player-characters continue to bob and weave.

In other words, if you play your character "no fun" wise, then it's not my responsibility to fucking hand you Protagonized Fun on a silver platter. The player says, "Hey, this was kind of boring or weird, I felt uninvolved," and I say, "Yeah, you started uninvolved and you remained uninvolved, and I got tired of holding your dick waiting for you to piss."

I occasionally run into a version of this issue when GMing Sorcerer. A player may think that he or she can simply run about being weird and more or less doing nothing, or doing spastic things off the cuff, which is pretty much nothing with an accent. The obvious consequence is that his or her demon rebels and finds someone else worth being bound to, often in such a way which leaves the sorcerer quite badly off. "Hey, that's funny, I felt deprotagonized," - and I say, "Hey, that's funny, you played a psychotic idiot from the git-go."

A related issue is ignoring your own needs and limitations. You were tired. It wasn't firing on all cylinders for you. I strongly suspect that you were not particularly enjoying yourself. Why not, after an hour of the players skulking about, simply saying, "Hey guys, I'm whipped. Let's stop and play for real later." This is related to the first point because the Fun God is also the Fun Martyr when he gets the chance, and letting go of the first means the second goes too.

A final point: as you said yourself, this isn't a Trollbabe thread. You weren't playing Trollbabe nor are you familiar with the rules. I don't see any point in discussing that game here at all. I'm glad you posted the rules to the homebrew, though, because I can see the single and most significant deviation from Otherkind staring me in the face: no negative consequences embedded in the roll. In Otherkind, a lot of the time, I have to choose what undesired outcome will have to occur. In this, I don't. When I roll, I have the choice of an ice cream sundae, a bubble bath, or a massage from someone sexy. Can you see how this was clearly related to the issues you've brought up here?

Best, Ron

jburneko

I wanted to say that this thread has been very helpful and enlightening to me.  It really gets at something I've been struggling with in my gaming over maybe the past 5 years or so.  I've the issue being discussed here most strongly in my Dogs in the Vineyard games (which also features outsiders being drawn into complex NPC affairs).  My Dogs play has been very uneven.  Some Towns have rocked and others have felt flat and I've been hard pressed to figure out the difference.

However, after reading this and thinking back I realized that the towns that really rocked generally featured at least one highly motivated NPC who was running around *doing* stuff and the towns that fell flat generally featured a bunch of NPCs standing around in a circle pointing at one another waiting for the Dogs to pick sides.  I think the problem is that there still this kind of nervous response that if the NPCs start taking action, especially criminal action such as violence or theft then the "moral choices" that the game is ostensibly about become "too easy."  He attacked first therefore that absolve me of all moral responsibility.  This ties into the issue ties in to what I was talking about in that thread about my current Sorcerer & Sword game.  I brought up the Dogs in the Vineyard meta-physics issue you get with some players who simply think, "he throws lightening bolts, he's a sorcerer, therefore he's evil, therefore I shoot him; no questions asked."  (I don't have this problem but some players do).

Ron, rightfully turned that discussion around to the specific points regarding my abilities to throw meaningful antagonism at the players.  And I think that's something I've struggled with since day one at The Forge.  What is *meaningful* antagonism.  If two guys come through the door with guns, what separates two guys who add suspense and drama from 2d6 hobgoblins off the random encounter table.  I think it's related to the idea that there's something more at stake than just the danger itself.  I also know it when I see it but it's really hard to articulate as a simple principle.

But what this thread has thrown into sharp relief is that it's not all on me (something I've known but frequently forget or get tripped up by on gut level).  If I throw a punch and the player's flinch, that's not my problem or responsibility.  In my other thread CK brought up the idea of Kickers in Sorcerer presenting opportunities.  I realized I've been shying away from opportunity Kickers because I feel like it sets me up as GM to be accused of railroading.  The Kicker says the character wants this thing so I throw opposition between the character and that thing. Then the player just has the character shrug and go, "Eh, not worth it after all" and not in a cool thematic emotional reversal kind of way.  Then I feel like I'm railroading because I "needed" the player to stick to his investment.  I'm a bad GM because I can't properly antagonize apathy.  But I suppose there's a difference between railroading and expecting basic commitment to the character and game.

Don't know if that wandered around the topic or not but that's what all this made me think of.

Jesse










Noclue

Jesse, I have comments but then the thread would really start spinning out of control and away from the topic.

Paul, I went back and read the OP and noticed something interesting (at least to me). The situation you set up posits that the PCs destabilize things by there very presence. That's what you said. Merely, showing up causes destabilization. But, that is not what you created. You created a situation in which the PCs could destabilize things if they chose to act.
James R.

Arturo G.

Reading this thread I got a click in my head. Something similar as Jesse, I think.

I'm running a little TSoY game, two very short sessions already. I prepared some NPCs in a conflict situation. But some of them are not really working on play. Even one of the PCs which is more related to them is still somehow wandering around.

And of course. The ones which are making the PCs thrill and react, are the ones with real agendas or interests. The ones doing things, for good or bad. The ones reacting to the situation and the PCs presence. Sometimes even just trying to ignore their presence to make the situation evolve on their way. Now I recognize that my other NPCs were just there to show information (which I naively expected to be shocking and a motivation for the players to act), and asking the players to do their stuff. Lame.

Now I know what I should do with those NPCs.

Oh! As soon as I have started to think on them as more proactive, I have realized how are they going to be useful to throw cool stuff on the players faces.

Thanks for this thread.
-- Arturo

Ron Edwards

Paul,

My previous post reads a lot harsher than I'd thought.

I notice also that I didn't stay too consistent with "I" and "you" were, so figure whoever the GM is in the particular paragraph, is you-Paul, whether it's expressed as "I" or "you." I think it'll be clearer that I wrote the post with a sense of being on your side, with the harshness directed toward the other players in question (speaking abstractly, not the real persons you played with).

I'm interested in your thoughts on the content. Arturo and Jesse are being all insighted and thankful-like, but on the other hand, they are accustomed to me storming around and snarling obscenities as I make points.

Best, Ron

Paul T

Hello, everyone.

First of all, thank you for all the replies. There`s some good advice in there, from everybody.

Ron, thank you for posting that second post, because your first one is very strongly worded and appears to read into my report a bunch of stuff that I am pretty sure isn`t there. Now, I know from conversations with you in the past that you like to jump at an issue you think may be there, with the caveat that, "if this does not describe your game, feel free to ignore it; I wasn`t there in person." I hope you`re still posting from that point of view here!

In particular, it`s very important to point out that I am not Paul Tevis--I just happen to share the same first letter of his last name. Therefore, those linked threads are not mine, and (as far as I know; I have not read them) not relevant to this discussion. Ron, if any of your assumptions in posting in this thread are coming from past conversations with Paul Tevis, please reconsider them in light of this fact.

I also hope that`s where you`re getting all the comments about "make the players do this", "MY players", etc. That has not been my mindset at all. Indeed, the problem with the session described here (and similar situations) is that what I really want is for the players to act, because my interest in GMing the game is to see what they come up with and what direction they want to go in. In a game like this, I`m interested in getting to that point more quickly, and in this case the setup worked a little bit against that goal.

(I`m also a little confused by your comment about the ruleset--it`s designed to create lots of unfortunate consequences to the players` actions, and it did. When the action started to get thick in this particular session, things spiraled out of control very quickly for the PCs, so I`m pretty sure the rules do what they`re supposed to do. It`s very far from an easygoing system--it`s very tough on the PCs, in fact.)

Jesse, what you posted above is very much in line with the issues I`m struggling with, and if you could provide a link to that thread (or enough information for me to search for it), I would be delighted.

Like Jesse, I find it difficult sometimes to see the line between "2d6 ninjas burst through the door" and meaningful antagonism initiated from the GM-side. Jesse, your line about "something else being at stake" is a great way to cut through that Gordian knot, and I`ll be keeping that in mind.

I would like to continue this conversation, in particular for anyone who has had a similar experience.

To reiterate what I said above, my issue with the session was not that it was terrible. We had a good time, but we felt like we were only getting to the good stuff towards the end. I`m pretty confident that, had the session run for four hours (instead of two), the game would have been powerful, interesting, and satisfying. I`ve run many such sessions in the past. Indeed, in the case of this session, the original plan had been to play for that period of time. And our game showed every sign of heading in the right direction.

Instead, we had to cut it short (due to other matters, unrelated to the game), which was somewhat disappointing: we had to stop just as things were coming to a head. The experience left me wondering how a similar fun experience could be delivered in two hours instead of four.

All the points about NPC proactivity were very good. My attitude in designing the scenario had been to create a bunch of NPCs that needed things from the PCs. The presence of the PCs on the island would have allowed any of them to achieve their goals, and break out of a stalemate situation. (And this feeds directly into what Jesse was saying about his Dogs game, as I hope is clear.)

Having been in a more cogent state of mind, I could have been much clearer (in my own head) about what each NPC was after, which would have helped a great deal, and is a point of advice I`ll be carrying away from this thread.

I wonder, also, if a simpler backstory (one that could have been revealed very quickly, with fewer words) would solve this issue. There were enough little twists in turns in my backstory that I think the players were enjoying themselves simply uncovering what was going on. Once enough of the backstory had become clear to act, they did. So, perhaps if there had been less information to uncover, they would have acted more quickly.

I also think that the social circumstances (one person new to gaming altogether, one hadn`t played in a long time, the three of us had never played together at all) are an important factor. I know that I feel hesitant to jump straight into something with an unfamiliar activity and unfamiliar people, preferring to "play it safe", feeling out boundaries, and I can`t imagine that it`s too different for anyone else. I`m kind of surprised no one has commented on that aspect of the game--any similar--or contrary--experiences out there?




Paul T

(As a sidenote: Ron, your points in the beginning of your last post, about A, B, and B' versus C, were excellent, and I agree in full. I'll definitely be taking that advice home.)

Andrew Norris

Quote from: Paul T on July 29, 2009, 05:56:36 PM
In particular, it`s very important to point out that I am not Paul Tevis--I just happen to share the same first letter of his last name. Therefore, those linked threads are not mine, and (as far as I know; I have not read them) not relevant to this discussion. Ron, if any of your assumptions in posting in this thread are coming from past conversations with Paul Tevis, please reconsider them in light of this fact.

Those threads have gotten referenced in similar situations (I remember being linked to them when I had some Bang questions in the past), so I don't think it has anything to do with a username confusion. It's fairly common here to reference threads where similar situations have been addressed in the past.

I'd like to reiterate that their content's probably relevant to the situation you're facing. (I'm following this thread with interest because I recently had a player tell me I was running into these same kinds of situations when GMing.)

Noclue

Nope. Ron refers to the threads as "your old threads." Clearly some internet confusion, but possibly still relevant threads.
James R.

Ron Edwards

Paul T .... ptevis. Got it now. My mistake for sure.

Paul, it seems as though we managed to communicate anyway. I think you'll find the other Paul's older threads interesting.

I noted one other detail upon re-reading the initial posts, which is that one of the players has a strong computer-RPG background. I don't know if what I'm about to say fits, so I present it only as a possibility. Those games are notable for equating "story" with "game designer's back-story," and to play "for story" means basically to keep rubbing every surface until the whole of the back-story is finally revealed and you can bask in its complexity and content. Possibly that experience acted as prior training or at least some degree of influence on that player.

Best, Ron