[SHADOWS]: Is a gradually-built dramatic climax possible?

Started by Elkin, April 25, 2009, 08:49:52 PM

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Last summer, at a local convention, I GMed a four-hour game using a modified version of Shadows (http://www.harlekin-maus.com/games/shadows/shadows.html). The game world was along the lines of C.K. Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday", involving progressively-minded individuals at the onset of the 20th-century, attempting to thwart an evil anarchist plot while questioning their own commitment to the existing social order.

The PCs were part of an elite international police force, with their shadows being their nemeses, stereotypical Victorian villains shun by society due to their radical opinions.

I also tweaked the token system to include more neat stuff to spend them on aside from rerolls, including forced weaving and temporary director's stance.

The game was quite enjoyable, mostly at the second and third hours of play, after most players got the hang of the system and began tormenting each other with creative use of tokens and created interesting scenes for the PCs to explore.

The fourth hour of gameplay posed a difficulty I didn't expect. Shadows is geared entirely towards playful exploration, and as such does not allow a climatic ending like the one my players and I expected. Another big mistake I made was introducing player-initiated PC death during the last hour of play. Since the theme of the Supernatural was introduced earlier by one of the players, some of the PCs and NPCs died, resurrected, died again and eventually I had to end the game in a very cheesy manner.

Next week I'll be trying my hand again at the same game. My questions are, from the most to least burning:

* Is there a way to fiddle with the basic mechanism of Shadows to allow the gradual culmination of the plot towards a dramatic climax?

* How should PC death be introduced and handled in Shadows, if at all?

* If, unlike in my previous game, the token circulation should grind to a halt due to one player receiving tokens from other players, but not spending them, how should the hoarding player be encouraged to do so?

I will gladly provide further details if they are needed, even though the original game was almost a year ago.



Love the game, reminds me of a game me and my mate made up a while ago. I like the way it distinguishes between events in a way very familiar to children; getting what you want or getting into trouble. Ours was a little more crunchy with a "compromise" system instead of your giftable rerolls, which I think are pretty solid.

That's what got me thinking; Isn't it interesting that what your game cannot handle is things that children also find tricky?

So to solve this I started building up the task structure, from immediate gratification to more complex "tension buildup to resolution" situations, like a piece of music, and also like the growing attention span of a child.

So what do you get if you recursively nest the skill challenge structure of something like 4e or shadowrun and combine it's dynamics with those of the "w plot"?

Well it works like this; the first conflict leads to a problem, either caused by the mistake (failure result), or revealed by your success. Now this can be tweaked depending on the complexity of the first objective, the point is that when seeking to get their milk (minimal challenge) something happens that tells them that something bigger is going on. Now this first problem includes a certain number of minor challenges (which are of the same importance as the milk in themselves), for clarity I'm going to say 3. If you succeed at more than you fail, you get to resolve the "main" problem, but it reveals a worse one.

Now this is where it gets recursive; each of the "challenges" to solve this even bigger problem are challenges like the one you just accomplished, with one difference; failure at them does not open up yet more doom, it's just a failure at that specific level. If you complete more of them than you fail, then you succeed at the broader challenge. This keeps on going up, so that completing a challenge at scale 0 produces a broader challenge at scale 1, which to complete requires 3 scale 0 challenges, and this then opens up scale 2, which takes 3 "scale 1" challenges to complete, each of those being made up of minor challenges.

Now in terms of what this feels like, the first challenge is just a normal one, but then it becomes more important; every challenge you complete from then on has a concrete plus-point of it's own, if you get it, but also contributes to the bigger prize. This reward should be sufficient to compensate loosing at one of the smaller challenges, but not so much that there isn't a certain bitter-sweetness at the minor loss. In the same way, the rewards at scale 1 should not obliterate the scale 2 tension for long, but they can do it for a bit. Depending on how the rolls go this can produce tragedy, constant victory, all sorts.

If you want to insure victory, you can shift from a "best of 3" method to a "grind" method, where completing enough relevant small challenges will resolve the bigger tension, but losses can take away, so it's just a question of racking up successes until you win.

This is incompatible with tragic/disaster movie stuff, unlike your system, so I wouldn't recommend it.

Now in terms of actually implementing this, try to leave gray regions to make "the big problem" what suits the character, as each level takes more time than the last, you will have more and more time to work out what drives the character to make the next level relevant. If you're still not sure, add "side quests" that are actually testing grounds to see what the players dig into, little flags off the side that they can follow and complete but that do not add to the main problem. In fact, if they do play really well, you may be able to make them main quests after all, but I don't recommend that: It's so much cooler if that little side element turns out to be a "hint" of the greater problems and challenges, after the main quest is completed.

So that's how I would do it, not by adjusting the resolution system, but by adding to it a form of ratcheting importance in how you frame and set conflicts. If people try to solve scale 1 conflicts with single rolls you always have the previous scale 0 conflict they completed to give a sense of scale, so they will hopefully be able to understand that you cannot phone Sauron and ask him to stop, although you can phone up potential allies etc. (Naff example but I hope you get the picture)

I haven't yet got the solution to the "dead characters" problem, but I'm sure if you ask Ron will come up with some lovely old thread where it's talked through very clearly!


Thanks for the reply. You might be on the right track - the problem probably has to do more with my GMing skills than with the game mechanics. I've been reading some of the other Shadows threads, and I think I wasn't clear enough about how exactly I tweaked Shadows to suit my needs, and what is it that I still can't get out of it, but desperately want to.

Some background: I completely abandoned the game's original settings. I didn't play the game with children, nor did I have child PCs. What I liked about the game was its basic resolution mechanic: state what outcome is desirable to your character, state what outcome is desirable to some malicious being that haunts it and roll the dice. Next, let other players interfere with the results.

Another thing I did, which to me was readily apparent from the rules (or at least from one of the play examples), was to use shadow rolls not so much for action or goal resolution, but also to a large extent to what I now recognize as "the Mountain Witch trick", to get the players to contribute to the game world (and to save me the trouble of actually coming up with a coherent and fully-developed fictional world beforehand). Such a shadow roll looked something like this:

GM: You quickly go over the the suspicious-looking document you found in the desk drawer. It's a list of names. What do you think these names are?
Player: Hmm... Maybe a cypher of sorts.
GM: And what would your shadow like them to be?
Player: Dunno - a list of sleeper agents, ready to be activated at any moment?

The result of this is that the game progresses with players alternating between accomplishing goals (getting hold of the documents) and creating new information about the world (deciding what the documents actually are), thus creating new goals to accomplish (neutralize the sleeper agents). I find this sort of gameplay to be well-suited to the basic plot of the PCs uncovering an insidious conspiracy perpetrated by their shadows.
The problem I face is that I don't really know where to stop: when to assume that the PCs uncovered the final layer of the conspiracy, and that they have sufficient knowledge and power for a final confrontation with the Bad Guys.

I GMed the game to two different groups, with varying degrees of success in that regard.
Last Friday, I played it with a group of highly experienced players, who, when the time for the game began to run out, skilfully patched up the stray plot-lines into a single, well-executed conspiracy, and set up the foundations for an intense and climatic endgame scene.
When I previously GMed this game, for a somewhat less experienced group, I had a somewhat worse outcome. Neither my players nor I could get the stray plot-lines to converge (though we might have not been actively trying to do so), and I ended up forcing an endgame scene on the players out of nowhere, which provided a crappy ending to a good game.

I currently run the same game to my flatmates, who have no prior RPG experience, and I'd really like that game to end like the first game, and not like the second. I have no idea how to bring it about.

Your suggestion, if I read it correctly, is to make the goals progressively more difficult to accomplish, and then pick one and turn it into the endgame goal. This sounds like a good idea, but I'm not sure on how to implement this with player-created challenges. Should I ask them to provide more difficult and contestable goals, or should I create details to make the goals they just created harder to accomplish? If the former, how should I phrase this sort of request (my current players are still pretty insecure when it comes to describing possible outcomes of shadow rolls, even without such a constraint)? If the latter, how do I keep this sort of tampering from frustrating the players?

As a sidenote, Shadows includes no endgame mechanics. Shadow rolls, even when won, tend to provide further complication rather than a definite resolution. At some point during the endgame scene I abandoned shadow rolls altogether, switching to drama-based action resolution instead. Nothing inherently bad about it (though I'm not a big fan of drama-based resolution), but I did stretch the endgame scene unnecessarily before I noticed this. As far as patching up the plotlines go, I think I'll do that explicitly this time, as a collective group effort ("okay, so we have the train robbery, the secret messages and the assassination; how does it all tie up?").

Ron Edwards

One thing that Shadows leaves kind of open is the difference between "what is here and what does it mean" vs. "what happens when I do X?"

The latter is pretty clear. "I sneak after him." What do you want (perhaps to see where he came from), what does the Shadow want (perhaps for him to talk to me).

But the former ... well, is it even up to the resolution system to determine what is in a letter that I've found? At all?

Or is that part and parcel of what the GM describes, much in the sense that if I go up some stairs, the GM says, "OK, you're at the top"? My concern is that if the resolution system is used for this kind of thing, then rolls start getting used for every single instant of play, merely to establish the moving-on of the fiction in the first place. Play of this kind has a tendency to go nowhere. On the other hand, judiciously used for key moments of discovery, this application can be very handy and exciting.

I think answering this question for your version of play, i.e., how you want to do it, will get you a long way toward resolving your current conundrum.

Best, Ron


Quote from: Ron Edwards on May 04, 2009, 05:06:16 PM
My concern is that if the resolution system is used for this kind of thing, then rolls start getting used for every single instant of play, merely to establish the moving-on of the fiction in the first place. Play of this kind has a tendency to go nowhere. On the other hand, judiciously used for key moments of discovery, this application can be very handy and exciting.

From the game text (http://www.harlekin-maus.com/games/shadows/shadows.html):
QuoteAs the Game Moderator, it is your role to keep the story moving along and to call for Shadow Rolls when you want to increase tension.

To my understanding, choosing when to call for a shadow roll is the main role of the GM in Shadows.  I don't see shadow rolls as a plain resolution mechanic - I think the GM should resolve most of the less tense tasks with drama, pausing for a roll only at critical moments. Similarly, the the GM should provide most of the descriptions of the gameworld instead of creating it entirely from player input, rolling only at junctures when what is established in the fiction will have a major effect on how the plot unfolds.

That said, your post made me realize that there probably is some sense of "stuckiness" in my current game, with the newbie players. Speaking to them, they told me that they're not quite sure what they're supposed to do, and are not sure if what they're doing is right. I do hand them positive feedback when they describe creative character actions and possible shadow roll outcomes, or when they express interest in the plot and the gameworld. Am I not doing it expressedly enough, or could there be something else (perhaps related to that 'going nowhere' you warned about) feeding their insecurity?

Ron Edwards

The trouble is that the quote from the rules does not answer the question I posed. The question is simply left up for grabs in the rules. Maybe I can get my point across through some specific advice.

Here's what I suggest, as an experiment or advice designed specifically to help you with your question: as GM, take total control over all in-game content like "who this person is" or "what does this letter say." Just make it up as you go along, or perhaps some of it as preparation or notes. Use the Shadow rolls only to resolve direct actions on the player-character's part; don't use them to fill in the details of what is there, who a person is, or what's going on already.

I don't claim to be clarifying Zak's intent or to be explaining "how to do the rules right." I do know that this advice is very functional for the purposes you're seeking, while preserving the power and fun of Shadows in the most important moments of play.

If you try this, then the section of rules that you've quoted may be interpreted as saying, "Generate lots of situations that give the player the opportunity to take action, because then you'll have lots of rolls, and lots of rolls means a dynamic, interactive sequence of events."

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

Whoops, forgot to add: as far as I can tell, what I'm suggesting is already very much along the lines of your stated personal interpretation anyway. So I think we're agreeing, and I'm trying to help you isolate the way and moments of when rolls are called for.

To continue with the most important bit, which was really dumb not to put into my post, I recommend making it clear to the players when rolls will be applied and when they won't. That means they will understand that there are no wrong actions, and that they should do stuff, do stuff, and do more stuff without worrying whether they're supposed to. And that as long as they treat the rules (what you want, what the Shadow wants) honestly and with a fun spirit, the plot that ensues will itself be honest and fun.

I hope that helps!

Best, Ron


I wonder whether there is a way to make the overarching structure that is compatible with the weirder way that this system produces drama:

In a traditional system, it's true that there is a concrete division between character as a vehicle for story creation, and the extra-character events. By re-introducing that this system could be compatible with all the common GMing tricks, but I feel like this is too much of a cop out.

Here's what I find cool about this system; the players are producing their own opposition, automatically making it something they can cope with, and then presumably having that dialled up by the other players to suit themselves, via the token gift mechanism. And when I say suit themselves, I mean suit their narrative interests: Players would only "make things worse" if it suited them, more likely they could make things different, so elements of their own story-telling appear in other players narratives, and beautifully, the token system makes this a gift of story from one player to another!

The next stage I would suggest is a creation of a hierarchy of effect, so that while the players roll to decide things on a certain scale, the GM works out the next scale up. My idea, (although I phrased it in the form of task resolution) was that the players decide details at a scale they choose, and that the GM takes on everything at a scale above it. So for each player the first skill check they use forms a sort of 0 point in the scale, saying that effects from then on will be of about that size, but they will be put together by the GM to form larger effects.

To be honest I fell into normal thought habits when creating the first setup, inspired as it was by normal task resolution mechanics. So I'll try to go at it again, see if I can make a more appropriate version:

The GM can ask players questions, not just about what their character does, but what they experience in certain situations. But they can also set the general course of things and set those as out of reach. Now if you don't limit this to player character action, how do you tie down the players narrative control? Well my idea is that after the first few rolls you put them together to make some extra effect, so you let them play out the first few actions just going on a "you find a book, what's in it?" style of play, essentially allowing their indirect world-building to get them into the swing of things, and then you put together what they have said into a bit you narrate. You either come down on shadow-side or character-side, depending on how the rolls have gone. But having done that, you create some impetus in the setting itself that they can't just roll away, at least with a single roll. The classic example of this is a fight; you say that you can't just kill this guy, you have to play out the fight, and you narrate a small amount of what the enemy does. Then they carry on the rest, saying what alternatives they can come up with etc.

Producing a hierarchy of effect in this way is a big bit of creating drama; certain things cannot be done in a single roll, and so you must chain up actions to get what you want. Now I can't decide if this produces too much planning; planning and long term thinking was my objective with the original recursive model. Hopefully starting small will mark out the importance of the events, producing a rhythm that underlies the fiction even if it doesn't come to the surface.

The thing I called the w plot by the way is shorthand for the standard Hollywood script scaffolding; you have a starting situation with a protagonist, but then events take a turn for the worst, or at least build up their own momentum, until there is a turning point and the protagonist stops being carried along and shapes events, leading to achieving a resolution, where they get what they want, or seem to, before it is proved to be a lull and action shoots off again, more thoroughly this time, with "more at stake" for example, until the protagonist once again gets a hold of events and it eventually reaches it's conclusion, tying up all the stuff that's happened.

Now there's another way to look at it which is just watching the tone, where it goes worse worse worse, better better better, much worse much worse, much better much better, but I wanted to emphasise the "flow of events" thing to relate it closer to what I was thinking about here.

Now this won't have the same "turnaround" structure, but it would have the idea of a flow of events that colours the scene, with changes of tone coming in when the GM interprets the stuff to produce the set of events for them to react to. Now that stuff I was going on about with side-quests is player created events that have no influence on the main flow of stuff, but are still influenced by it.
As an example, say you look at the start of the 1st world war, people can side-quest by creating stuff about a fragile idyll, soon to be changed forever by the coming storm, or about petty cruelties and perseverance soon also to by overshadowed by the coming challenges, and its absurdity. Now if players just keep "sidequesting", then they have accepted those themes as a good bedrock for their play. If they want to go change it, then it will be harder than anything they have yet attempted. Can you imagine an adventure about stopping the "great war"? It would be amazing, whether they side with shadow and end with disheartened characters in the ruins of the second international or arrested and disowned as traitors, or side with character and end up managing to transform the very concept of national pride!

You can give events weight by filling in the steps between them, making them bigger things literally because they are made of so many smaller things. This would mean that character death could be considered to big to waste on a single roll, or made so small that it is replaced with a new replacement.

Death among immortals is a different thing, people loosing heart or giving themselves up, the death of a character if not the death of a being, and in those situations the higher stakes must be something different, if you have let death be a "normal" thing.

Note that this kind of idea allows you to have momentous events as you reach the end of a story, but they are put together by the GM from the players preceding creations rather than produced in a roll.

As one final idea, if my idea about having the player set the scope of a roll doesn't work, perhaps you can take a page from the source material you all enjoy, reading out a sentence that shows how most things happen in that book, its' pacing in other words, and use that as the basis for the scope of players creations.