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Author Topic: Making the transition from mission based play?  (Read 23860 times)
Jasper Flick
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« Reply #15 on: April 10, 2010, 01:27:25 AM »

Quote
For mission structures, one effect I have encountered is that if the general structure of play is to travel to some far away place to do some thing, this effectively always makes the characters strangers in their local surroundings.

Dogs in the Vineyard is basically mission-based (town-based). But you're not anonymous stangers! You are divine agents, and recognized as such. And third house on the left? There lives your cousin Jack. As a Dog, you're a stranger to none.

Dogs towns are very different from stuff like Shadowrun missions, but the structure is similar enough that mission-based gamers aren't completely bewildered. At least, that's my experience.
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Frank Tarcikowski
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« Reply #16 on: April 10, 2010, 02:57:00 AM »

Hi Jim,

Thanks for the info, that puts things in good perspective. I don’t know if my own experience is very helpful to you, because the group constellations were quite different. The one time it worked well, it was because the characters had already got a lot of personal stuff going on, in which the players were invested, and then the GM simply took away the missions and started building on the personal stuff instead.

It’s good you have a bunch of enthusiastic players with many of them also sometimes GM’ing. That means they are generally able to, and interested in, authoring their own “stories” (in the broadest sense) through the medium of role-playing. One question though: Do you usually switch GMs in a running campaign? So that different GMs will be running games for the same bunch of characters? I suggest that such an approach would not be optimal for player-authored, story-oriented role-playing. You would want to have a consistent development / build-up of the story, so I would recommend setting up a new game entirely, with new characters, where the same players and the same GM will be playing until the story is finished (which need not take forever, maybe aim at 5-10 sessions to start with). Probably three to four players would be a good number.

The characters should be created in the presence of the other players, maybe with specific restraints in mind to gear them towards a premise of the (mini-)campaign. They should not be a typical adventurer party, and they should not be travelling around looking for adventure. Instead, they should be staying in one place (e.g. a city) where they are doing whatever they are doing. You might work together to link them in some way, give them personal relationships. You should encourage the players to put in conflicts with NPCs or even PCs, and maybe some issues for their characters. Maybe you as GM will want to add some external conflict as catalyst (the city is under siege, there is a gang war going on, the ruler just died and a new one has not been appointed yet, etc.)

Quote
So we need a way for players to say, "I so put this on the character sheet BECAUSE I'm ok with it coming into play.  In fact, I want it to come into play!"

Just talking about it is already very helpful. If you are looking for a mechanical way to implement these kinds of “Flags”, maybe take a look at The Shadow of Yesterday / the Solar System. The “Keys” are superb at this and are usually easy to patch into your trad game of choice. Another approach would be to tell the players that everything on the character sheet will come into play, so they better consider this. The Keys are great because they reward players for this stuff coming into play.

Quote
In our group it's considered bad form to put the other players in the position of sitting around watching while one person plays. 

I once read an article by Wolfgang Kramer, renowned German board game designer, in which he explains how players must not wait too long for their turn, but an important factor of how long you can let them wait is whether they have a chance to participate while it’s not their turn. So on the one hand you should not let solo scenes drag on too long, or maybe try to run parallel solo scenes, cutting back and forth. There is a technique called “Flashpoints” (I think) where you let different scenes climax at the same time, cutting back and forth quickly, and even would play (say) a fight at the same time, going through each round by order of initiative (or whatever you have) even though it’s really two different fights.

On the other hand, you should encourage players to engage in scenes where their characters are not present. This may be limited to listening and commenting here and there, but you could also (for instance) hand an NPC to one of the other players. Some games also explicitly use mechanics that let other players participate, the simplest being “Bennies” of some sort that you may spend on rolls other than your own, and/or may award to other players (popular example: “Fan Mail” in Primetime Adventure).

Plus, with three players, everybody gets much more screen time than with six players.

Hope any of this helps. Good luck!

-   Frank
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Aelwyn
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« Reply #17 on: April 10, 2010, 05:46:53 AM »

One of the things I like about Spirit of the Century is that character creation explicitly ties the characters together and is used for developing NPCs, especially antagonists. So instead of the players being dragged into a complete world created by the GM, the GM has to create the world based on the types of adventures and enemies the players pick.

Here's how it works: Characters are the stars of pulp novels. During character creation, the player whose character is Sally Strife decides her one of her background novels is Sally Strife and the Cult of the Withered Hand, co-starring the Man from Outside Time (another PC). Boom. That's how Sally and the Man from Outside Time know each other, and the GM now has a group of NPCs to throw at the characters--the high priest of the Cult of the Withered Hand and his minions. The player gets to create the nemesis--the GM fleshes out the nemesis and plays it in the game.

The GM can still run the characters through a preplanned mission, but at some point, the Cult should show up as a red herring or an ally of the bad guys--or maybe a group that surprisingly rescues the heroes for even more nefarious purposes!

This system requires a lot more flexibility from the GM, and I don't think it would work with a complex, traditional RPG where you need to have NPC sheets ready before a campaign.

Now if we could figure out a way to base adventures on character abilities...
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Paul T
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« Reply #18 on: April 10, 2010, 07:53:42 AM »

Along the lines of the last couple of posts, one really effective technique for the GM to get away from "mission-based play", as you're describing, is to consciously limit his or her concept of preparation. You or another GM in your group can try this very easily without having to change anything else in the game. Here's how:

Once you have a concept/premise for the game (e.g. pirates fighting a fanatic religious cult off the coast of Sri Lanka), have everyone create characters. Ideally, do so in a way that tells you a lot about the actual characters and what/who they care about--those are much more important than things like equipment and ability scores. The usual "character history" can be a good source of this stuff. (It can be great for the GM and the other players to ask each other leading questions to deepen this information, e.g. "Your father abandoned your character as a child? How does she feel about that now?")

Once that is done, the GM collects all the character information and prepares for the actual game. This is where the "conscious limit" comes in: the GM makes it a rule for herself NOT to put anything into the adventure or scenario that she did not take directly off one of the character sheets. The raw dough the players have given you in terms of character concepts is all you have to work with. The harder you make this rule for yourself, the more effective it will be.

That's just a simple experiment you can start with, but I think you'll find it revealing.



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contracycle
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« Reply #19 on: April 10, 2010, 10:29:57 AM »

Dogs in the Vineyard is basically mission-based (town-based). But you're not anonymous stangers! You are divine agents, and recognized as such. And third house on the left? There lives your cousin Jack. As a Dog, you're a stranger to none.[/uote]

I don't buy it.  Neither authority the PC carries in the game, nor any made-up-for-the-moment personal connections to the place, qualify at all for providing a sense of ownership and involvement.  Dogs are still there to Dog things, not settle-down things.  Play is not going to recur in the same place, and I don't see that the players will consider it any differentl; no matter how allegedly familiar it is supposed to be to the characters, it's still new to the players.  I don't really see that this is particularly different to a Shadowrun mission, nor is there any reason in general that it should be.
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JB
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« Reply #20 on: April 14, 2010, 10:04:19 PM »

Just a short note to say I haven't dropped this thread entirely, but I've had too much other stuff going on to make any kind of considered replies.  Some good advice here, some of which I plan to implement in our games if possible, and some of which we're already doing, which makes me feel like we're on the right track.

Thanks to everyone who's contributed so far,

JB
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JB
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« Reply #21 on: April 18, 2010, 09:59:03 AM »

So the main thing I’m getting here is “To get more character driven play, the GM has to stop ‘bringing the plot to the players’ and let the players bring the plot to the GM.”  This approach is, of course, dependent of the players to bring enough to the table for a game. 

It is possible, however, that players may be ‘willing but unable’ in this regard, ie, lacking the skills and/or structures to construct characters that facilitate this approach. 

I think this may be part of our problem in getting away from mission based play.  I’ve attempted to run games using a similar approach to what Paul T describes, but have had problems making those games ‘pop’ because the players didn’t provide their bits to make that work, and so we fell back on the ‘mission’ thing.

Let me stress that I don’t feel like the players aren’t providing these bits because they don’t want to, but because they can’t identify these bits consistently enough to provide them.  Also let me say that this doesn’t apply only to the games I’ve GMed; I see this happening in games I’m playing in as well. 

So how does one approach learning to craft characters for this type of game, or teaching others how to do so? 

(I personally think studying narrative construction in general is helpful, but some people may question the validity of applying this sort of thing to RPGs specifically, and in any case, reading Egri or what have you is going to be too much like homework for some people, so I’m looking for something that's a little more concise and can be implemented more quickly.)
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JB
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« Reply #22 on: April 18, 2010, 10:15:29 AM »

Related to the above, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between creating characters and statting characters, or between ‘elements of the character’ and ‘mechanical representation of those elements’.  The division isn’t so clear cut in most games chargen procedures, often involving working back and forth between the two, and either can serve as the antecedent to the other as well.  (For a very simple example, take ‘built like a brick shithouse’ and ‘high Strength and Body stats’.  Which of these comes first in the chargen process depends on the game, and to an extent, the player.  Also note that ‘built like a brick shithouse’ likely requires ‘high Strength and Body stats’, but ‘high Strength and Body stats’ could be described in a variety of ways.)

From some of the statements made earlier in this thread, I’m coming to see that there are two different approaches to statting characters; One school of thought attempts to comprehensively model every element of the character with some kind of mechanical representation, the other emphasizes certain elements by giving them mechanical weight.  I'm also seeing these approaches as the ends of a scale rather than wholly separate and discrete practices, with individual players gravitating towards a given point in the spectrum 'by default'.

(There’s likely some kind of correlation to creative agendas here as well, but I’d leave exploration of that idea for another time and thread.) 

Also realize that some games make no provision for mechanically representing certain elements, but don’t necessarily prohibit or deny the elements themselves.  (eg, There are no ‘Contacts’ in D&D; that doesn’t mean the players can never establish PC/NPC relationships that they can tap for favors, etc...)

Recognizing that there are two approaches to statting character elements goes a long way towards understanding why taking a ‘use everything on the sheet’ sometimes causes more problems than it solves. For the player who’s taken a completist approach, ‘I’m gonna use everything on the sheet’ is usually (and often justifiably) taken as a GM screw-over; For the GM attempting to do so, these are the characters with ‘lots of detail, but no focus’.

On the other side of the fence, there’s the attitude of ‘if it’s not on your character sheet, it doesn’t exist.’  So in the case of our hypothetical ‘guy with the kids (but this story isn’t about the kids)’, if the player doesn’t take ‘NPC Dependents/5’, does the character even have kids? 

Finally, most of the methods I’m familiar with for ‘fleshing out a character’ generate a lot more of these kind of background character details than will ever be shared with ‘the audience’.  RPGs confuse the issue though, both with the ‘collaborative authorship’ thing and the players (GM included) acting as both author and audience simultaneously.

Whether this is helpful to anyone else I can’t say, but for me it goes a long way towards explaining some of the problems I’ve seen in games in this regard.
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Judd
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« Reply #23 on: April 18, 2010, 12:23:26 PM »

So the main thing I’m getting here is “To get more character driven play, the GM has to stop ‘bringing the plot to the players’ and let the players bring the plot to the GM.”  This approach is, of course, dependent of the players to bring enough to the table for a game. 

I think this is a really dangerous misconception about player-driven play, or perhaps I mean more character-driven play.  The idea that because the action is centered, not so much on the mission, but on the character's NPC's, goals and such, means that the GM can be lazy with prep and/or scene-framing is entirely untrue.

What it means is that the scenes are primarily about what the player has said is important about the character and the mission is secondary.  For an indicator of what is important we look at:

  • The descriptors and back of the sheet for Sorcerer
    Beliefs, Instincts, Traits, Relationships, Affiliations and Reputations for Burning Wheel
    Aspects for Spirit of the Century

Using these items to drive the campaign does not mean the GM can stop bringing-the-mission to the player but it does mean that if there is a mission, it should be crafted in such a way to intersect and weave in the above player-authored elements, to challenge them and address them.

I think Dogs is a really interesting example because it is entirely mission-based but how the mission is resolved is up to the players through their judgment.  The mission becomes personal, certainly and after a half a dozen to a dozen towns, the characters will be changed through engaging the system and gaining fall-out.
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JB
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« Reply #24 on: April 18, 2010, 10:57:02 PM »

Judd, no offense, but I think you've missed what I was getting at. 

All that stuff you mention - the back of the Sorcerer character sheet, BW's BITs, SotCs Aspects?  That's what we're depending on the players to bring to the table for the game.  When I say the players have to bring enough of it, what's 'enough' is sufficient quality and/or quantity of the indicators of what's important to the player that the GM can "[use] these items to drive the campaign."

If you don't have sufficient quality and/or quantity of the indicators, it's damned hard to use those items to drive the campaign. 

In that scenario, you can either:
A) Opt for a play style that's not so dependent on player indicators.
B) Figure out ways to improve the quality and/or quantity of player indicators.

What I've been calling 'mission based play' is one way of doing A).  We're trying to accomplish B). 
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Judd
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« Reply #25 on: April 19, 2010, 12:35:00 AM »

Hey JB,

I would imagine that character-driven play can happen in a group as large as you are talking about.  I've GMed games like that back in college, games with really good friends playing for long sessions back in the day when gaming for 12 hours on a Saturday was no big thang.  Nowadays, I just couldn't game like that and honestly, wouldn't want to.  We were drifting the shit out of Ars Magica and the character indicators came from one-on-one interviews between me and the players, talking about their character histories, etc.  It was pretty tedious.

Regarding the quality of the indicators, if the game demands some kind of indicator, you spend a session sitting around and making shit up.  Mind you, it is a difficult process and requires us to tell our friends that something isn't quite right and help them re-write it until it is right.  It means critiquing one another and supporting one another get those indicators set up for solid play.

Quantity of player indicators,  I would imagine that has to do with the system one is using.  As mentioned above, I've done it, bent Ars Magica to our will, made it do all kinds of stuff it just wasn't made to do because we were enamored with the Verb/Noun magic system and were hopped up on Robert Jordan and youth.  But it took a severe amount of energy.  It was swimming upstream rather than, with games made for this kind of character-driven play, swimming with the current.

Judd

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JB
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« Reply #26 on: April 20, 2010, 12:40:33 PM »

Judd,

Yeah, I don’t personally see the size of the group as a deal breaker for character driven play.  I’m not even sure that it necessitates altering one’s approach to that, at least not to any greater extent than it does any other aspect of play.

What you say about the difficult process of making up indicators is dead on.  Part of the challenge is creating an environment where people feel comfortable doing what you describe, and establishing procedures that encourage productive results from the exercise.

As far as whether the game demands indicators or not, it looks to me like they’re a requirement for the kind of character-driven play being described, regardless of whether they’re explicitly demanded by the game text or not. 

Regarding ‘quantity’ of indicators, you’re absolutely right - it’s going to vary from game to game.  I mostly included ‘quantity’ to cover the extremes of ‘too few indicators’, ie, none; and ‘too many indicators’, ie, a lengthy list of things with no indication as to which, if any, have greater priority.  I was mostly thinking of informal means of implementing indicators, like character backgrounds or interviewing players, but it can apply to formalized indicators too; as an example, in Burning Wheel, there are rules about how many Beliefs one must and can have.  You can’t ‘play a few sessions and then write beliefs’, nor can you ‘write a dozen or so and then see which ones work after a couple games’, although I’ve seen people suggest such things. 

That said, issues with quantity of indicators are a lot easier to address than issues with quality, so let’s focus on that.

About drift and ‘games made for this kind of character-driven play’, I’m in general agreement with you, but I think sometimes drifting may be worth the work involved.   I once equated it to modifying a car to go faster - if you want a fast car, does it make sense to start with a compact commuter? Someone pointed out that although you might not end up with a very fast car by doing so, you’d probably gain a much, much better understanding of what actually makes for a fast car than if you just bought a performance model.

To get the kind of play we want, the group’s having to learn some new techniques, and ‘unlearn’ some old habits.  Just getting to the point where we can communicate what we want articulately is a challenge.  For example, I’m the only one familiar, or even inclined to become familiar, with the terminology and theories in use here at the Forge; regardless of the validity or lack thereof of those theories, etc... it means that where you and I can go more or less right to discussing ‘indicators’ and the like, for my group to do so first requires establishing a whole bunch of contextual structure.

As an example, we’ve had some problems with people authoring indicators that are irrelevant or contrary to what the Player actually wants, basically because of a lack of a term like ‘indicator’ and a general confusion about what one is.

For what it's worth, I feel like we're making progress on the matter, both here on the forums and at the game table, so thanks.

JB
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Judd
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« Reply #27 on: April 20, 2010, 02:16:43 PM »

Good luck, JB.

Two things:

...nor can you ‘write a dozen or so and then see which ones work after a couple games’, although I’ve seen people suggest such things. 

Ya can't write a dozen or so but you could write 3 and change them as needed.  Dropping a belief that is not being used and changing beliefs as play continues is absolutely a part of play.

When I talk about swimming against the stream when I was playing Ars Magica back in the day, I wasn't meaning only me as a GM.  I also meant the effort by everyone at the table to get to the kind of play we enjoyed with a system that was not helping us get there.

I'm really curious about how you and your group set up play.  Using indicators can often mean a real change to the way campaigns are set up at the table.  I'd love more AP in this here AP thread.
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JB
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« Reply #28 on: April 21, 2010, 03:17:15 PM »

Yeah, we're arguing to the choir here.  I know you can change Beliefs once play begins, and if Beliefs DON'T change over time, you're probably 'doing it wrong'.  You still have to winnow it down to the 'top three' though.  (Hell, there's nothing saying you can't drive your character to do stuff that doesn't tie into their Beliefs, you just won't get any Artha for it, so it's a 'sub-optimal move' to make.) 

As far as our set up procedures go, they're currently not conducive to this type of play.  We recognize this and are trying to retool, but it's requiring that we examine those procedures and do some 'thinking outside the box'.

(Note that 'our box' is not the Forge's box. The Forge's box is bigger than ours, so a lot of what's 'revolutionary left field' stuff for some of our group is old hat here.  That's not to say we're opposed to trying 'revolutionary left field' stuff, just that there's a fair amount of inertia arising from habit to be overcome.)

That said, here's a description of the most common setup procedure:

Step 1) The group comes to a consensus on what game to play, ie, what 'system' or game text are we going to use?

Step 2) Whoever's going to be GMing starts doing 'prep' for the game.  This is done more or less alone, in between game sessions.  Usually the GM will want to get some idea of the characters to be played before they have a go at running a session, but not always.  'Some idea of the characters' tends to be along the lines of'class/race' designations for games with such devices, or 'basic concept in a nutshell' for those without them, eg, "Crane Bushi", "Psyker", "Ork Gun Adept", etc…

Step 2A) Players make characters, more or less concurrently with the GM's prepping.  This is usually also done alone and in between game sessions.  Sometimes the group will 'take a session to make characters' but, there's still very little interaction between players during chargen. I've compared it to a group of people taking the SAT - "No talking, keep your eyes on your own work."  Like the GM, a player may sometimes, but not always, ask about the characters others intend to play, usually to avoid ending up with characters that are too similar.

Step 3) Get together and play. 

One of the things that I see is that the group as a whole likes to have a lot of time to make characters - a week or two to put something together is pretty common, and if we devote a session to chargen, people will probably just have rough concepts and some primary stats to support that concept on paper at the end of four hours, and will 'finish up the character' on their own before the next game.

There's no standard for backgrounds and descriptions or the like - some people will write this kind of stuff out and share it with the GM, some will write this stuff out for their own reference, and some don't put anything on paper beyond the stuff that has mechanical representation.  However, it's fairly obvious during play that people are giving this stuff a fair amount of consideration whether they document it or not - depending on the game players may interject such details into the SIS thru play, although because of the structure of our games, these details end up being more like character trivia than something that influences the course of the game.

JB
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Judd
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« Reply #29 on: April 23, 2010, 03:20:53 PM »

JB, I am going to quote the portions of your description that I think could very well be getting in the way of character-driven stories.

Step 2) Whoever's going to be GMing starts doing 'prep' for the game.  This is done more or less alone, in between game sessions.  Usually the GM will want to get some idea of the characters to be played before they have a go at running a session, but not always.  'Some idea of the characters' tends to be along the lines of'class/race' designations for games with such devices, or 'basic concept in a nutshell' for those without them, eg, "Crane Bushi", "Psyker", "Ork Gun Adept", etc…

Step 2A) Players make characters, more or less concurrently with the GM's prepping.  This is usually also done alone and in between game sessions.  Sometimes the group will 'take a session to make characters' but, there's still very little interaction between players during chargen. I've compared it to a group of people taking the SAT - "No talking, keep your eyes on your own work."  Like the GM, a player may sometimes, but not always, ask about the characters others intend to play, usually to avoid ending up with characters that are too similar.

The characters are not linked and more importantly, the GM's prep is not linked to the characters the players created.

There are quiet, SAT-like, moments in chargen for a character driven game but other times it is like a dinner party with loud, excited people talking about something that interests them.  Ideas are tossed back and forth, some are gold, others are left mouldering on the side of the road and when we are done, we know just how the game will start next week with no idea where it might end.

Without linked characters and GM prep that takes the characters the players have created in mind, the mission becomes the game's structure because otherwise, there is often nothing keeping them all together, very often nothing concrete for them to do.
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