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Author Topic: [Pitfighter] how I learned to push my GM plots into play  (Read 1930 times)
David Berg
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Posts: 997


« on: November 13, 2011, 04:45:58 PM »

Hello,

This post is part background for my other Pitfighter threads, part summary of my take on a classic problem in RPG play, and part response to Jamie's recent encounter with this problem.


Terms:

First, a few terms I'll use here (and would be happy to see used elsewhere):

1) Before, Now, After.  When any activity (formal procedure, casual group chat, writing ideas, etc.) is performed relative to a given session of play.  More specifically, for this discussion, when any decision or determination is made.

2) Outcome.  How a situation of play, as faced by the player characters, resolves.

3) Play Situation.  Something the player characters do address, regardless of whether it's choice, dice, or Force that brought them there.

4) Plot Situation.  What's going on in the player characters' world, regardless of whether they can or can't and do or don't address it.


The GM's Evolving Wants

I went into GMing with an explicit intent to do Plot Situation Before.  I was excited to have all of my cleverly-written developments, with my various schemes and factions, occur during play.  However, unlike Montsegur 1244, which does Plot Situation Before, I also wanted the players involved in that plot somehow.  Exactly how, I hadn't though about.

As we began play, I tried to engage the players with my plot by offering them a difference-making role in it.  Boom!  The Montsegur formula is out the window.  You can't script that the Cathars are besieged by the Catholics in Act 4 if you're going to be enlisting the players to prevent the siege in Act 1!

But I didn't realize that I was wrestling with an incompatibility here.  I was getting a big high off the players' involvement, which I didn't want to back off from.  I told myself that I was willing to be flexible about my plot's specifics, so I thought that the players' impact could simply be incorporated.  And there were some times when I was right!

So, at this point, I'm no longer doing Plot Situation Before; I'm doing Play Situation Before.  This is vastly more rewarding.  In Montsegur, the Catholic invasion doesn't always even get talked about by the player characters.  Sometimes the context that it lends to the relationship dramas in the castle, while valuable, is completely unspoken.  In my Pitfighter game, on the other hand, my Mandragon invasion was all anyone could talk about!  When, how, what does it mean, what can we do about it, what should we do about it?!  We had some sessions where the back and forth was truly glorious, with the players captivated by my every nugget of revealed plot, and me captivated by their every response.

Unfortunately, the dirty secret I never faced up to was that you can't do Play Situation Before without doing Outcomes Before.  I would start with a Situation I thought was open-ended, but then realize in the moment that there were certain ways it couldn't wrap up if I was going to introduce my next Situation.

It took me a while to catch on.  Before I did, I used a lot of awkward Force.  "Oh, crap, I can't let you take the pirates' boat!  Uh, it catches fire."  Probably the worst possible solution for long-term play, as it short-circuits player expectations about how to contribute.

My friend Marc ran a 3-year Rifts campaign right before this, and he had a different problem.  He refused to use Force, but wasn't prepared to support play outside his plot.  So there was a lot of meandering about in There's Nothing Fun To Do Here land.

Different approaches, but Marc and I had the same problem.  As GMs, we valued player choice and hated the idea of railroading.  But we were addicted to Play Situation Before!  We tried to have it both ways, and it didn't work (colorful examples in next post).


The GM's Awakening About Situation

At some point, Marc and I both had our awakenings, and realized, "Oh yeah, being able to get Situation 2 into play means a limited range of Outcomes for Situation 1."  This is the point when you might think we'd say, "Hey, maybe we should evaluate what we really want to do with our plots, and get the players on board with that."  But no!  We did what a lot of GMs apparently do, if the bulk of "good GM advice" out there is any indication:

We tried to plan the connection between Situations so perfectly, to cover everything the players might do so thoroughly, that no Force would be needed.  I'd anticipate that the players taking the pirate ship would be bad for my plot, and so I'd make that an obvious impossibility from the outset.  Thus no last-minute "Uh, wait, no!  Your plan that should have worked, doesn't!"

And this is where the dream began to die.  Have you ever tried to do this?  It is not fun.  If you're psyched to be making up stories and enlisting other people in experiencing them and adding to them, then the last thing you want to do is go over your exciting yarn with a magnifying glass and pre-play out everything that might happen.

But it's tough to see another way out!  If this soul-crushing method was completely ineffective, it'd be easier to write it off.  But it actually does work, if you're willing to put in the time.  My friend who spent two months prepping each session never used Force and only rarely had a brief departure into No Fun Here land.

Two months.  Count me out, man. 


The Patch

In the end, my group did what a lot of groups do: we found a balance:

1) I did some planning to avoid using Force. 

2) With lots of practice, I was eventually able to anticipate a Force moment on the horizon and ad-lib something to make sure it didn't arise. 

3) Sometime I wouldn't feel comfortable using Force, and the players would wander off the plot, and then I'd just try to help make the off-plot tangent enjoyable, with humor or whatnot.  Like the nasal-voiced armorer who kept trying to sell the party an Enchanted Stoat.

4) And every once in a while, I would use Force, and it'd be awkward, and there'd be moments of anger or resentment, but the players would forgive me because they knew the pattern (I wouldn't do this too often), and the social activity of play was fun enough (thanks in no small part to my engaging plot) for us to persevere past some hitches.


Conclusions

Look at all that.  That isn't the right way to do anything.  It's unreliable, risky, and demanding.

And yet, the overall experience of play, over many many sessions, was positive.  Maybe that's because we started young, with tons of free time to waste, and played often enough to develop some serious skills over the years.  By the time of my college Pitfighter game, I probably had over a thousand hours of GMing under my belt.  But I don't think that's the only reason.

I think the basic thing we were attempting is incredibly powerful and attractive.  (I've ranted about why enough elsewhere, but will repeat here if requested.)

I also think that, absent relevant rules or guidance, it's somewhat natural for GMs to fall into Outcomes Before, even from a starting point as innocuous as "I've come up with some cool stuff I want to happen in play!"

Ps,
-David
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David Berg
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Posts: 997


« Reply #1 on: November 13, 2011, 05:08:21 PM »

Marc and I had the same problem.  As GMs, we valued player choice and hated the idea of railroading.  But we were addicted to Play Situation Before!  We tried to have it both ways, and it didn't work (colorful examples in next post).

As promised:

Marc's Resigned TPK

Marc's failures were actually in refusing to apply Force and then refusing to support the consequences. 

There was a badass NPC merc who'd grabbed the crystal we were after.  Marc's plot included a secret about how this merc had been hired by our boss, and would simply hand us the crystal and tell us info about our boss if he knew who we were.  Marc spent the whole scene waiting for any PC to refer to any other PC by name, so he could bust out this reveal. 

But we never did. 

So we fought the merc, and let the dice resolve things, and the merc got away with the crystal, and Marc was done.  He had nowhere to go from there.  Without the leverage of the crystal, he had all our characters killed in their sleep that night by our boss.  Game over. 

A week later, Marc decreed that he'd been off his game that night, "So let's pretend that session never happened, and here's a new point to continue from."  So he was willing to change his m.o. to overcome total catastrophes. 

The more frequent problem was minor catastrophes, where the characters spent a lot of time wandering through There's Nothing Fun To Do Here land.


My Awkard Ad-libbed Force

My failures were in awkward applications of Force.  "Now that I realize you're about to do a thing that'll obviate my planned next Situation, uh, well, something changes and now you can't do that." 

It's been a while, but I vaguely remember that the players, en route to the next big location/scene/discovery of my plot in Haven, got attacked by pirates they'd earlier pissed off.  I was planning it just as an adrenaline boost as a reminder, "These guys are out there and they have some mysteries about them too!"  The players came up with some cool ideas about using positioning and minor spells to knock enemies off the boat, and generally outsmarted their way out of any significant injuries.  They won handily, and it was a fun scene.

But then the had the brilliant idea to grab the pirates' abandoned ship and use it to infiltrate them.  Or something.  Whatever it was, it would take them far from Haven.  So just as the players are set to act this plan, I say, "The pirate ship is on fire.  It's a lost cause.  It's gonna sink."  I, of course, don't have any satisfactory answers to "How and when did it ignite and why didn't we notice?"

Worst thing possible.

By bouncing from "contribute by coming up with clever ideas, acting, and rolling dice to succeed" to "no, wait, that clever idea doesn't count, no action, no die roll", a GM will short-circuit player expectations about how to contribute.  This can lead to quitting, disengaging, or maybe even giving grief out of resentment.

We only avoided this as described in "The Patch" in my previous post.  And because we started young, when we had tons of free time, and we just liked hanging out together.  We also played enough in middle- and high-school that I probably had 1,000 hrs of GMing under my belt when I began my college Pitfighter game.
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David Berg
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Posts: 997


« Reply #2 on: November 13, 2011, 05:17:39 PM »

A final note about characters, character creation, and expectations:

At the point where I as GM began doing Play Situation Now, the players' range for exploring their characters took on some serious constraints.  If this had cut off what they'd been excited about in the first place, that could have been a deal-breaker!  That sounds to me like what happened in Jamie's Glorantha game.

Fortunately, Pitfighter was my baby from the ground up.  My campaign plot was already partly formed in my mind before we even agreed to play.  So, when I introduced the setting, the players were getting the right idea.  And, when they made characters, I worked with them, to tie their interests to mine (and even a little bit to my plot, though I wasn't aware how crucial that would be).

All this meant that when my Force popped up, at least the players weren't having much anticipated or hoped-for content yanked out form under them.  If we'd been using someone else's world that the players had learned from a book, and character creation had been done individually, that probably would have been disastrous.
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« Reply #3 on: November 14, 2011, 12:53:40 PM »

Fortunately, Pitfighter was my baby from the ground up.  My campaign plot was already partly formed in my mind before we even agreed to play.  So, when I introduced the setting, the players were getting the right idea.  And, when they made characters, I worked with them, to tie their interests to mine (and even a little bit to my plot, though I wasn't aware how crucial that would be).

All this meant that when my Force popped up, at least the players weren't having much anticipated or hoped-for content yanked out form under them.  If we'd been using someone else's world that the players had learned from a book, and character creation had been done individually, that probably would have been disastrous.

I wasn't sure where you were going until this final point, but that does make sense, in the same way I can't see how a stong vision for how the story will play out is possible with Story Now play, it is certainly vital in many play styles. But, if the GM is not up-front about the expectations of play then it is easy for a player to get the wrong idea.

Indeed in the example of M 1244, you are not really using the structure of play set out, as somthing to play with. But this kind of game has proven problematic for many. Just look at how many people play Burning Empires with the idea that the general play informs the meta-plot at every turn, instead of using the meta-plot as a backdrop for the main play with at most an occasional influence upwards.

In my instance some of the fault in my example was the GM's choice of game, Hero-Wars had a very stong Story Now supporting text, with both the presentation of the setting and many of the mechanical systems pushing the game in that direction. To then attempt to GM it with contrary expectations; with a Story Now blind spot, formed by years of playing RuneQuest; without realising that it is necessary to point out that the game was going to be traditional in structure and play style, was doomed before the start. In fact the game payed out OK but it never really grabbed me after my realisation that the potential I had glimpsed was being denied.
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Roger
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« Reply #4 on: November 14, 2011, 01:43:55 PM »

Did you ever try revealing your plots to the players prior to play?  If so, how did that work out for you?  If not, why not?


Cheers,
Roger
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David Berg
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Posts: 997


« Reply #5 on: November 14, 2011, 03:50:54 PM »

Jamie,

That makes perfect sense to me.  I remember taking home the Cyberpunk 2020 game in high school, making a badass assassin character with monowire and a synthetic demon face, and getting all psyched to basically play Hunter Rose Grendel... and then I wound up as part of a 'tac team trying to unravel the mega-plot of some evil corporation while shooting it out with their henchmen.  Gah.  Not thwarted Story Now per se, but definitely a thwarted vision.

Totally agreed on Montsegur, though I'm surprised by that point about BE.  Isn't it part of the GM's job to engineer intersections between the characters' Beliefs and the Vaylen's agenda (via the FONs' Beliefs)?

As for being up front about the expectations of play, that's certainly what I do now!  In a recent D&D3 game with strangers, I delayed the beginning of play by asking, "So, are we gonna be in tough fights where we really need to strategize perfectly, and the character stuff is take it or leave it, or are we gonna roleplay a lot and maybe hand-wave some fighty stuff, or some combo, or something else?"  The GM seemed surprised by the question, quickly replied "that second one", and everyone else nodded.  I think this helped the game.

That said, though, I think it's interesting how a lack of awareness of this issue can still be somewhat bridged by simple interest in each other's domains.  In Pitfighter, I really wanted the players to be excited about their characters, and the players really wanted to engage with my setting.  Our techniques to achieve that were sorely underdeveloped, but the will to try totally saved us.  "Dave seems stoked about these badguys, I guess I'll make a character who's got a personal angle on them."  "John wants to play a power-hungry character, let me tie my conspiracy to his town's government."


Roger,

Did you ever try revealing your plots to the players prior to play?

Like, revealing what was going to happen?  Hell no!  That would defeat the whole purpose!  "Okay, guys, here's where I reveal to your characters that big secret I already told you; try to act surprised!"  That sucks ass.

If you mean revealing what play was going to be about, as in, "This campaign will be about discovering who wants the doomsday weapon, and why, and how to stop them," that might have been a good idea.  I didn't do it because I didn't realize it might be necessary.  My instincts were to let the players slowly and organically discover the doomsday plot, and I didn't question my gut.

Ps,
-David
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« Reply #6 on: November 15, 2011, 11:03:54 AM »

Jamie,
Totally agreed on Montsegur, though I'm surprised by that point about BE.  Isn't it part of the GM's job to engineer intersections between the characters' Beliefs and the Vaylen's agenda (via the FONs' Beliefs)?

By my reading its all about the GM playing the FON's to the hilt and although there is a mechanical influence up to the meta game it is not supposed to be direct "defeat the Vaylen plot lets make a plan" play. 

IMO It would play out like M1244 but with a mechanical gear allowing the mechanics to shift up a scale and influence whether a siege takes place. So you don't know what is going to happen at a meta plot level before hand, and you don't directly steer it either.

I have never actually played it however, but have devoured the book (its so lovely, and the Graphic Novels) and that is how I would play it.

Because BE is adversarial it is just a way of making sure the meta plot skews towards the direction of the current winning side, with neither the players' or the GM's hand on the tiller.

I think many confused BE games are exactly like the game you describe, players trying to influence outcomes at a higher scale than they should be focused on with added confusion when the lower outcomes don't mesh with the higher ones.
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David Berg
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Posts: 997


« Reply #7 on: November 15, 2011, 01:46:41 PM »

Burning Empires is an interesting game.  I played one full phase a few summers ago.  The GM did indeed simply play his FONs to the hilt.  One of them didn't even know his actions were benefiting the evil Vaylen invaders! 

But there was also the FON who was clearly engaging in military schemes on the Vaylen's behalf, and there was the occasional color scene of some border guard getting hulled.  Without those, the sense of purpose and consequence and drama for the player characters' endeavors would not have been nearly as high.

I think there's a feedback loop: you get spooked about the Vaylen, you write Beliefs that you think will accomplish things to thwart Vaylen efforts (even though the rules don't distinguish between thwarting and non-thwarting successes), and then your Beliefs drive the content of play toward being concerned with the Vaylen.  I think this is vital.  If my power-hungry corporate character had been trying to take over the colony for purely selfish reasons rather than to save it from invasion, I think it would have been flat, and the other players would have cared about my scenes a lot less.

That kind of fragmentation is one thing my Pitfighter game steered clear of.  When you spend most of your time interacting with the GM plot that underlies the whole campaign, you're always going to have that larger context present, lending oomph and relevance to what happens.  It's aligning that oomph and relevance with player decisions that's been the tricky part.

Thinking back on earlier play, I think part of what inspired me to focus Pitfighter on a single plotline was previous disunity in other games.  Unconnected dungeons, solo side-quests, etc.

The fact that you can't just go ahead and directly influence higher-scale events in Burning Empires before all the Maneuver and Phase rules let you -- I see a parallel there to the fact that you can't unravel a Plot Situation Before GM's plot before they're ready for it. 

Both approaches need:
  • clarity up-front about the rules by which the large scale is resolved (BE Phase mechanics, Pitfighter GM fiat)
  • clarity about the constraints imposed thereby (no fictional outcomes can defeat the Vaylen before their Dispo=0, or defeat Dave's badguys before Dave's ready)
  • participant willingness to help manifest those constraints in the fiction

That last point is a matter of personal perspective.  My friends who are veterans of Burning Wheel say they don't feel like they're playing to the mechanics, but it sure looks to me like they are, and I know I whiff a lot if I try to "just play my character".  To enjoy playing with them, I find that I need to look at mechanical facts as situational facts -- "Well, if the rules say I can't find this dude right now, even though I was just friggin' talking to him, then... I guess... ah, he must have darted into a side tunnel to sneak-attack the badguys!"  I suspect that my Pitfighter players overcame some of my awkward Force moments with similar mental efforts.  "The last pirate to leave the ship could have knocked some lantern oil onto a lit cannon fuse; that's why the boat's on fire!"

I actually don't find it more strange or difficult to extend the spirit of "I'm going to give this a good solid shot and see what it can deliver" to GM fiat than to a ruleset.  In either case, if it turns out to suck, I'll stop.

I've gotten awfully tangent-y here, but I think there may be some takeaways for the SBP design thing I'm working on.  If so, links shall follow.

If anyone wants to talk about the conclusions from my initial post, I'm still game.
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David Berg
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Posts: 997


« Reply #8 on: November 15, 2011, 07:39:30 PM »

Oh!  And here's another key to the degree of success I achieved with Pitfighter: respect character sovereignty.

Burning the boat and killing the NPC and laying waste to every path except the one that led to my story wasn't always good play, but, in my group, it was always preferable to mind-control.  The players always kept control over their characters thoughts, feelings, and attempted actions.  No amount of wanting to drive the characters toward my plot ever led me to start a sentence with, "You feel a sudden desire to..."

Having character sovereignty as an inviolable principle influenced my GMing greatly.  "It's not okay to just do whatever you want to make your plot happen" may have been the foundation of my will to improve my techniques.  Further, the idea that every character's mind was outside my jurisdiction meant that I didn't prep plot based on what they would think.  That's not to say I didn't make any assumptions about what they would think.  But most of my assumptions were stuff like, "They'll stay invested in saving the world even when it looks pretty hopeless," and, "They'll take the obvious route to Grey Island." 

I never based my plot plans on an assumption about a personally important or potentially character-defining choice or attitude.  No planning for Ben's character to sell the party out to the Mandragons (which he did) or for She-Dragon falling for Metalstorm (which she didn't).
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David Berg
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Posts: 997


« Reply #9 on: November 17, 2011, 10:06:12 PM »

For context, the system we used in Pitfighter was:
Formal: Basically AD&D2 combat, saves, skills, and advancement.  Except every 5 levels your weapon leveled up so I could draw some ridiculous 5-bladed sword or something, and you got an extra damage die.
Informal: Dave's running the show, but won't violate certain principles.  No mind-control, no deathtraps without warning, no violating fictional plausibility... probably others I can't come up with right now.
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