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Author Topic: Does chance favour a good story?  (Read 4172 times)
Unforgivingmuse
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Posts: 13


« on: March 09, 2011, 11:33:08 AM »

I've been game-mastering and writing games for rather longer than I care to mention, and I like to think I've got a handle on most things. I like to think I can predict what most of the player characters are likely to do in a given situation, but I still get caught out occasionally. Not often but it is almost invariably when the players, or even just one gets a sudden burst of overconfidence against odds that they should have them running in the opposite direction, and rather than being decimated they have a run of luck that I wish I had when choosing the weekly lottery numbers.

In my system narrative is king, and it says something that all my players (playtesters), bar one are experienced game-masters themselves. But even with that experience this issue still crops up once in a blue moon, and the effect can often have serious ramifications to the plotlines.
I realise that rpgs are generally intended to allow for this kind of non-linear turn of events, and when it happens I'm certainly grown-up enough to take it in my stride, and re-write any plot arcs that have been messed up as a result, indeed often interesting sub-plots can result from such events.

What I worry about is the question of whether I encouraged it to happen? I don't think the player gets so frustrated that they felt the character's suicidal charge was necessary to break the monotony, quite the opposite.Whilst it might sound like I'm ducking some sort of responsibility in my GMing, it is interesting to note that the player characters who this tends to happen with are exactly the kind of have-at-ye characters that take on these kind of odds in stories. Could it be that with a strongly narrative style of game that this sort of thing is inevitable; that experienced players get so tuned into their characters, that they will push themselves (and possibly all their companions) towards certain death, simply because that character would in a story? And that somehow, chance seems to encourage it.
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Chris_Chinn
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Posts: 280


« Reply #1 on: March 09, 2011, 12:00:42 PM »

Hi Unforgiving Muse,

Can you give us more context about what game system you're using and a bit about the group?  Also, do you stick strictly to the rules of the system or do you fudge them?

I've found in games where players see fudging, sometimes it can be confusing what encounters are impossible vs. what encounters are expected to be taken on.

Also, if the players are mostly familiar with stuff like D&D 3.0 or later, those games are built to always balance encounters, so players from that background don't expect "impossible challenges".

Chris
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Unforgivingmuse
Member

Posts: 13


« Reply #2 on: March 09, 2011, 02:31:52 PM »

Hi Chris,
The system is called Tefr, it is a percentile/skills based system with an emphasis on narrative roleplaying. This tends to put less focus on game/ruleplay and more on descriptive and character interaction. I'm being good and doing my time here on the actual play strand, before calling for feedback on the system itself.

Do I fudge the rules? that's a bit like asking a lady her age. The answer is yes, if it makes the narrative work better. I'll go right off the page if it makes for a good story, but I rarely need to.

I'm not sure if there is any issue over confusion; an army is an army, an uber-mage is an uber-mage. The players know enough of the world to know that fire burns, and if it is an entirely new encounter with something of unknown power I will never make it impossible.
Big nasty things are there to round out the story and give it an epic feel not slaughter everyone. Look, but don't touch.

I was speculating that it could be a case of roleplaying too well, insofar as the character would accept that the odds will most likely kill them, and the player plays them that way despite their own better judgement.

Simon
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Chris_Chinn
Member

Posts: 280


« Reply #3 on: March 09, 2011, 03:06:36 PM »

Hi Unforgivingmuse,

Quote
I'm not sure if there is any issue over confusion; an army is an army, an uber-mage is an uber-mage. The players know enough of the world to know that fire burns, and if it is an entirely new encounter with something of unknown power I will never make it impossible.

Well, here's the thing about playing games where there's a story the GM is aiming for AND fudging - the direct in-game fiction sometimes take a back seat to the non-verbal cues (real or perceived) over what you imagine the GM is trying to direct you towards, and players who are used to this kind of play can fall into it a lot.

How long has your group been together?  Have you played together a lot?  How long have they been playing Tefr?  What's the general age range of everyone involved?  What's the background on previous games played?

Chris
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Roger
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« Reply #4 on: March 09, 2011, 03:21:49 PM »

In my system narrative is king, and it says something that all my players (playtesters), bar one are experienced game-masters themselves. But even with that experience this issue still crops up once in a blue moon, and the effect can often have serious ramifications to the plotlines. I realise that rpgs are generally intended to allow for this kind of non-linear turn of events, and when it happens I'm certainly grown-up enough to take it in my stride, and re-write any plot arcs that have been messed up as a result, indeed often interesting sub-plots can result from such events.

For my own clarification, do you mean that:
  1.  As the GM of your "narrative is king" system, that you author the plotlines?
  2.  That you "re-write any plot arcs that have been messed up as a result" of your players' actions?
  3.  That you occasionally incorporate "interesting sub-plots" that arise from your players' actions?

I'm not trying to hound you here -- I just want to be sure that I fully understand what you're saying.  If, in the spirit of Actual Play, you could expand on your example of the characters' surprisingly-non-suicidal charge, especially in respect to what your original plotline was and what your re-write of the plot arc looked like, I would certainly appreciate it.


Cheers,
Roger
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Unforgivingmuse
Member

Posts: 13


« Reply #5 on: March 09, 2011, 04:16:51 PM »

Wow, I can see why I need to get the hang of things here before we get into any serious dissection.

I'm not looking for advice, I don't think.

Chris
 The narrative comes from big plot arcs that happen at the same time as the characters have some smaller, but perhaps significant task to complete, but I'm very good at winging it if they go off plot.

This group about three years, yes every month, three years, between 25 and 50, the whole spectrum. Before you ask, I've been doing it about 20 years.

Roger
Yes, I author my own plotlines. there are sub-plotlines within plotlines within master-plotlines.
Yes, I rewrite the plot arcs, often between sessions.
Why not come up a quick sub-plot as it suggests itself -ie a character takes an interest in a particular NPC and wants to meet them again -so a quick subplot could give that NPC a little backstory, that either aids or hinders the characters in their current task, it's not locked down.


The current example is that the characters are trying to smuggle the lord of a particular region through enemy lines and back into his own city. They have been posing as mercenaries working for the enemy as part of an advance group trying to establish a bridgehead on the far bank of a flooded river. They have just arrived on rafts when the entire mercenary group are attacked by a high level elemental -the kind only used by a top level enchanter in battle.

The players have not encountered such a high level enchanter before, but they have had plenty of build up, enough to know that, firstly such an enchanter would be a problem on his own, but secondly would be too valuable to be out without guards. The other thing they were supposed to have figured out (but it may not have yet dawned on them), is that this enchanter is quite likely to be on their side.

-My bit of plot is that the elemental has destroyed the rafts, killed a few of the mercenaries and scattered the survivors.
Half the player characters have done the sensible thing, but wouldn't you know it one went and flew over (yes, that one could fly) to have a look and got shot, and the gung-ho character has now charged the position, against eight guards and a high level mage.

Against the odds three of the guards have now been slain or incapacitated by this character. To fix things the remaining players should get the lord up to declare his identity, (but I'm not banking on it). However, they only have seconds to act, and that enchanter by rights should do something that could not only kill the character attacking, but the lord as well -which will mess with my plot, in no small way.

But I'll manage. I'm not actually asking for help, I was trying to establish if this occurred in other peoples games or not -almost out of interest.

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Judd
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« Reply #6 on: March 09, 2011, 05:05:32 PM »

Mr. Muse,

Hi, I'm Judd.  What is your name?

When I GM lately it is mostly Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World.  In these games, I never try to guess what the players will do.  I set up a situation that usually starts off simple and through character actions becomes nice and complicated.  I have no idea what they will do or how they will react. 

I think there are a few things that need defining and discussing.

In my system narrative is king

What does that mean to you?  Does this mean results of die rolls are disregarded?  Is the system your GMing or the game mechanics as written? 

Author my own plots.

What do you use for inspiration?  Where do these plots come from?  I get that some of them come from the character's actions in the game.

For example, in Burning Wheel, I build the going's on in the adventure based on the character's beliefs, instincts and traits.

Having peaked at the web site linked above, are all of the characters cursed by the gods and thus shunned by their friends and family?

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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #7 on: March 09, 2011, 06:10:00 PM »

Hey guys,

He's Simon! Already signed off as such. Y'all are missing that for some reason.

Simon, go with what Judd's asking. It's kind of a big deal. And welcome; it's great to see this kind of topic here.

Also, I'll be moving this thread to Game Development in a day or so, where it belongs. No big deal though.

Best, Ron
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Unforgivingmuse
Member

Posts: 13


« Reply #8 on: March 10, 2011, 02:45:23 AM »

Thanks Ron, I'm realising that my actual question is less relevant to this discussion, than how my system mechanic relates to a narrative form of play. I can see why that might interest people.

Judd, thanks for taking an interest. Tefr is not simply a mechanic, it is a mechanic embedded firmly in a world. There is a great deal of history, both mythological and political, as well as a current world landscape. It has been written in such a way that it all provides a lot of plot hooks for game masters to use for larger or medium plot arcs. Character level plot arcs are more standard much as you do with your Burning Wheel system, but clearly it will also be shaped by the larger story.
The system itself, is a more or less familiar percentile system, anyone who has toyed with Chaosium games in the past could pick it up rapidly. The magic is fairly unusual though, but fits strongly with the world.

Die rolls are necessary, but only combat needs them intensively, and I don't personally put a lot of combat into my scenarios -some, but I prefer to use other forms of conflict and a lot of focus is on character interaction. That said, the system could quite happily be used in a more game oriented way.

As for authoring my own plots, that is what I do: I'm an animator, illustrator, and writer, ideas make me a living. Thinking about characters for books is not so different to those in a scenario, you throw a situation at them and you imagine how they will respond to it. Sometimes I'm inspired by reading real history, local myths or legends, but a lot simply flows from the Tefr world as I'm musing it over.

The gods' curses are pretty much the premise for the player characters, it's what sets them apart from the rest of humanity. It is not an absolute rule -all rules are there to be broken- however, it can give the characters a slight advantage over their non-cursed fellows, and it leads to a lot of good roleplaying. I'll start a separate thread about that, it's what needs a thorough playtesting.

Simon
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Erik Weissengruber
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« Reply #9 on: March 10, 2011, 05:54:01 AM »

Someone in internet land coined the term "ludic peripety" to specify that kind of randomly produced sudden change in a game's fiction that still has meaning.

If I do a move in Apocalypse World I could cream an NPC from a long ways away with my sniper rifle OR do it and give myself away, OR bring hell on myself and never nick the target.

One roll will determine that.

In this game you don't bring things to dice resolution without the expectation that there will be an unpredictable outcome dictated by the game's mechanics (the "ludic" bit, the play with the dice), and that sharp or sudden reversals will be interesting (like the plot reversals or "peripetia" that Aristotle mentions in his discussion of dramatic plots).

Raw chance won't.

My recent play with 4E (largely satisfying but I don't like the D&D colour enough to stay in) saw both Crits and Fumbles and both were really dramatic.  BAM!  1st level loser bites it and I need a re-roll.  WHACK!  That's how my Eladrin puts petty humans in their places!

However, I knew that my character was under fire and underpowered and that any violent confrontation could bring glory or defeat.

Players have to know what chances they are taking and what those chances mean in a particular game.

Some folks I played Burning Empires with did not like the fact that scrabbling for bounus dice and giving help only shifted the chances of being successful in the grand strategy maneuvers that cap a BE session.  For me, that's what I feel a lot of politics is like: you scramble, scheme, plan but in the end the goddess of Fortune has a lot to do with deciding who wins and who loses.  But that grand strategy level won't bring an end to a campaign.  It records twists and turns and tells us how close we are to ending a Phase and on whose terms that end will be decided.

But in both games the chances I took as a player were made with full awareness of an enthusiastic acceptance of the kind of chances offered in each of those particular games and those presented to the PCs by the fiction.
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Judd
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« Reply #10 on: March 10, 2011, 06:39:54 AM »

Simon,

You have mentioned knowing what the players will do before they do it a few times.  Any particular reason why that is important to you?

Also, having a game where all of the characters are cursed by the gods is absolutely awesome, an amazing way to tie the group together.

Judd
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Unforgivingmuse
Member

Posts: 13


« Reply #11 on: March 10, 2011, 09:42:20 AM »

Eric, brilliant!
Ludic peripety, I've never heard the term before, but that is exactly what I was looking for earlier. I may even introduce that in my blog. Some more research there. I read large parts of Aristotle's works, but I must have zoned out for peripety.
(I switched to Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, which was is much more accessible book).

Judd, yes you got me there, I did sort of imply that didn't I?
I like to think I can predict what most of the player characters are likely to do in a given situation, but I still get caught out occasionally.
It was more of a self-mocking prelude to my original question than a claim of actual prescience. I intended to imply that despite my best guesses to the variety of possible actions they might take, I'm still surprised when they opt for something that seems unlikely.

And thank you for the praise about the gods' curses; I've developed this revision in a vacuum with only my players for feedback, so it's very good to hear that from another human being, and someone who knows what they are talking about to-boot.
You are human aren't you?

Simon
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Judd
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Please call me Judd.


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« Reply #12 on: March 10, 2011, 01:25:03 PM »

What I worry about is the question of whether I encouraged it to happen? I don't think the player gets so frustrated that they felt the character's suicidal charge was necessary to break the monotony, quite the opposite.Whilst it might sound like I'm ducking some sort of responsibility in my GMing, it is interesting to note that the player characters who this tends to happen with are exactly the kind of have-at-ye characters that take on these kind of odds in stories. Could it be that with a strongly narrative style of game that this sort of thing is inevitable; that experienced players get so tuned into their characters, that they will push themselves (and possibly all their companions) towards certain death, simply because that character would in a story? And that somehow, chance seems to encourage it.

I don't know the answer, Simon.  You tell me.  Do the mechanics of your game encourage it?  Is it something about the GMing?  If players get in over their heads, will they be bailed out or will they bleed to death in the street?

In my own gaming, those are the moments I shoot for.  I don't have an arc, don't have any idea where things are going.  I put forth conflicts without any idea as to how the players will deal with it.  I'm not set on any outcome.  We might fight the dragon, we might cut a deal with the monster.  The players might become the dragon's agents in the world or they might die by fiery breath.
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Roger
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« Reply #13 on: March 10, 2011, 01:58:59 PM »

Your game is an interesting case.

For certain historical reasons, a lot of games focused on the narrative have arisen, to various degrees, from the foundations of Lajos Egri's "The Art of Dramatic Writing".  That book specifically refutes Aristotle's Poetics.  As I'm sure you are aware, Aristotle's position in Poetics is that plot (mythos) is primary and character (ethos) is secondary.  In contrast, Egri suggests that character is primary and plot is secondary.

As an RPG design space, I don't think it's been well-explored.  It may well be that players find themselves inclined to lead their characters along the path of Aristotelian tragedy, which are characterized by extensive suffering by the protagonists.



Cheers,
Roger
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Erik Weissengruber
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« Reply #14 on: March 11, 2011, 09:17:20 AM »

I like to see mechanics that allow meaningful transformation of the imagined space as a whole.

Burning Empires:
- the Maneuver roll retroactively puts the characters' individual moves (which are never just individual, crowds, followers, etc. are always involved) into the perspective of the ongoing war against the Vaylen
- it also sets up the context in which future individual moves will be taken
- some I've played with don't like the absence of a direct causal connection between each action of the characters and the results of the grand maneuver, but it has never bothered me.
(Fortune plays a role here)

Zombie Cinema:
- the proximity or distance of the Zombies is the net result of characters' actions
- their relative position sets constraints and qualitative factors for the subsequent actions of the characters
(is this resolved through inflexible Karma?  -- I forget)

Dresden Files
- The rules encourage linking character accomplishments to transformation of the City Sheet.
- In last night's game the PCs were ambushed in a Toronto park by a duo of invisible Goblins. (resolved with standard FATE mechanics: Fortune with a lot of currency-mediated Drama on the part of players and GM)
- the PC who caught the arrow in the chest ("A frickin' arrow --- in 2011!) made a bargain with the mystical werewolf guardians of Toronto's ravines: mystical healing now in return for a vow to bring them the head of a corrupt cop who has been getting on their case. (going with the DFRPG's rules regarding how all sorts of supernaturals make bargains with mortals, no rolls involved.  Drama resolution following explicit game text rules).
- I took the City Sheet and considered how the night's actions might have affected the City as a whole.  Our entry for the Ravines classified the Ravines' Aspect "Nature Rules Here" and its associated Faces (the werewolves) as a Threat to the city.  The entry of humans into a formal pact with the Faces of that Location motivated me to switch that classification to Theme.  This switch will constrain what I have the wolves do later.  (Drama)

An abstract space of fictional possibilities can't be mapped onto the unfolding, temporal thing that is Aristotle's mythos.  But the both ideas posit a matrix out of which characters emerge and in which they can act, and which can be transformed by character action. 

Many games let chance (which is not the same as upredictable player input) affect that matrix through the use of dice, cards, etc.  Such Fortune mechanics have lead, in my experience, to the creation of good stories but only because the range of possible outcomes dictated by those mechanics had well thought-out relationships to System and Colour.
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