Thursday, January 5, 2012

No Future

Last month I wrote that a DM should erase any preconception of an ending or a resolution in building up a narrative.  Some gentle readers might be asking why that should be the case, or even how can that be the case, since part of building a narrative should include some kind of point or purpose for it being there.  How can you produce an adventure for a party if the goal of the adventure is not inherent in the narrative?

What I'm proposing is that the DM will do better overall if the goalposts are simply removed from the campaign.  'Goals' imply that one will cross a clearly defined and static line, spike the ball and shout victory.  Life - despite what marketing managers might insist - is not like that.  We strive for things we want, and we obtain those things sometimes, but the process does not end at a defined victory line.  The process of life just goes forward.

Imagine, if you will, the incorporation of an NPC into your game, who informs the players of a potential MacGuffin which the players might like to obtain.  In traditional RPGs, the circumstances around how this MacGuffin is obtained are rigorously determined; the existence of the NPC, and of other NPCs, depends wholly and completely upon the pre-ordained plan in the DMs mind.  The party will do this, and then the party will do that, and then the NPCs will mess with the party just so, and the party will circumvent that messing, and the MacGuffin will be obtained.  Thence, proceed with the adventure.

I am proposing that, instead, you imagine the NPC as a living, functioning being in the campaign.  Rather than having ordained the purpose of his existence, you as DM merely propose that he is a being with no special importance or fate.  He has knowledge of the MacGuffin.  That is all he has.  He wishes to obtain the MacGuffin, and he makes a proposition to the party to help him.  But he has no better idea of how he fits into the game than the party does.

This is not to suggest that you are 'running' the NPC.  Very often, I will deliver the NPC into the party's care, for them to employ, choosing to Veto anything the NPC might be said to do which does not fit into the personality of the NPC.  Thus, if I perceive that he is a greedy, mildly sadistic thief, he wouldn't sacrifice himself for others; he wouldn't give up a chance at a nice gem; he wouldn't hesitate to murder someone, and so on.  If the party indicated then that he chooses to spare a woman who gave the party information, I might say, "No, he's really not the merciful type," and have the NPC kill the woman.  Whereupon the party would have to choose how they dealt with Him.

What I'm proposing is that instead of devising a purpose for your NPCs, making them cogs in your great machine, you devise instead a behavior for your NPCs ... which then makes itself evident as the adventure goes along.  To devise a behavior, you must be able to conjecture how a person other than yourself would act in a given situation.  It isn't enough to say that such-and-such is kindly, or pious, or selfish ... you have to have, in your mind, a very clear sense of how said person would respond to a wide variety of possible situations - and then in turn have that character respond in that fashion consistently.

This is, I am told, extremely difficult.  It may be that I've had plenty of experience with creating characters for stories, or with taking on the traits of other persons when performing in theatre.  I think it is more likely that I have a clear understanding of why I do things, and that I can imagine why another person might do different things for different reasons that make perfect sense to that person.

For example, I'm not a jock.  I have played sports, and enjoyed them, but I don't identify with the ideals of sport and I'm not motivated to breaking my body for the purpose of winning or for personal glory in that manner.  But I can understand how someone else might feel satisfied with success, and how they might be willing to take punishment and give commitment to ideals of that kind, and feel that a life spent that way was worthy and important.  It's quite easy to imagine how a person like that might respond to loss, or personal attacks or success ... at least, enough to be able to predict the actions of an NPC with those characteristics, when confronted by something the party might do.

The quest, then, becomes less about the goal and more about the difficulties in communication between the players themselves, the players and the NPCs, and the reactions that both have towards obstacles that come up.  If your NPC doesn't have to fit a shoehorned concept of what he is meant to do when Obstacle A arrives, you can simply sit back, observe how the party  deals with Obstacle A all on their own, and employ the NPC as you think the NPC would react given the party's choices.  And if the party can't figure a way to get past the obstacle, YOU as DM don't have to solve the problem for them.  You are not contractually obligated to give the MacGuffin to the party.  The party tries, the party meets some interesting people along the way, the party gets some experience fighting a few baddies, and when they run up against the thing they can't conquer, they shrug, they move on, and they think for the next three years of game time about how they could have done it.

Failure is a tremendous motivator.

Your role as a DM is to employ your worldly residents and your worldly circumstances in the here and now, and forget about the future.  If you respond to the actions of NPCs as beings with no more conception of how the future will go than the players themselves have, then you have available many more options than you're giving yourself by having everything happen in cut and dried fashion.

When you ARE devising a campaign, with MacGuffins and obstacles, you want to think of what those things are, where they are, how they work, how they came into existence and who might be connected to them.  But you should not be pre-planning the manner in which they are obtained, or who is meant to obtain them, or why they ought to be obtained ... and definitely not how they must be obtained before the next MacGuffin's existence is revealed to the party in order to make your world work.

All of that preplanning is exactly what we mean when we say you're laying the roadbed for the ties upon which you will spike down the tracks for the train that will run to the station you think ought to be the destination.

Let the party lay the tracks.  Be satisfied with having the ground exist.


R.W. Chandler said...

Well said. I agree with this 100%. The idea of the NPC as having his/her own motivations and goals and react according to behavior and circumstance, just as the PCs would, is fundamental to my own games. And when you lay out goals for the PCs, rather than allow them to make their own goals, you are essentially doing nothing more than railroading them into your own novel being played out with dice, as opposed to a game where choice and player agency are the driving force.

Oddbit said...

This also seems to touch on the idea that is almost alien to many campaigns. The idea that failure can be accommodated outside a total party kill. That the party, through a series of bad rolls, or a lack of resources, drive or just bad direction can say, "we did our best" and walk away.

Anonymous said...

Alexis, this is a philosophy I myself have adopted over the years. Despite this, I can't wholly escape the necessity of an "overarching story". Or maybe better put, "the things that will happen given no direct intervention by the PCs". I'm here to say that neither do you.

I might be splitting hairs, but I want to throw it out here for discussion. Using an example that anybody can go look at (the online campaign) but not an example that would spoil any ongoing fun (not the current online campaign) I direct you to the Dachau campaign at its start as played on this blog and not the other.

While the party putzed about the city and got inklings of goings-on based on the presence of doppelgangers, gears were in motion and a definite climax was approaching that included a gate to hell being opened and ultimately closed by somebody other than the party.

My contention is that you likely conceived of this climax somewhere around the time a player-character inexplicably killed the party guide on their way to evict somebody or other, if I recall it all correctly, if not sooner. Not a goalpost, per say, and arguably driven by the sort of NPC motivations vs. do this here, do that there string-pulling... but there was a story being told and while the tracks weren't immutable, they were being laid, were they not?

If you agree, would you say the trick to making this narrative work is in making it meaningful enough to capture the attention of the players but flexible enough to allow for changes wrought by the players?

Alexis said...

A very fair point, James. Let us say that I feel no guilt in railroading NPC's, or having their 'overarching plotlines' converge in specific order, so that I can certain expect a certain thing to happen in a given time frame.

Take the more recent example of the ghost sending you do Devereaux's house. I had the whole house planned, with Devereaux in it and being alive, the moment I had the ghost speak of it. When the party went to the house, I knew (mostly) what they'd find there, and I had some preconceptions as to how Devereaux would meet his 'guests.'

However, there was no track. The party might never have gone there. The party might have waited until they were high enough level to use spells Devereaux couldn't thwart. The party might have tried any number of things, and I kept my mind open as to how to play the scene out as the party played it out.

In the example you gave, the party could have left Dachau at any time.

Let's say I try to maintain an idea of the future similar to actuality. According to all the numbers right now, Obama is going to wipe the floor with the Republican Party, no matter what dunce they put in harness. That's a probable future, and as a DM I can make plans and organize around probable futures.

What I don't want to do, I think we all know, is ensure that future by having every candidate except Ron Paul get electricuted during yet another television debate. It's the intent to ensure the future that is the crime here.

But you knew that. You just wanted me to admit that I have my eyes firmly fixed on the future, even if I don't make it happen.

Anonymous said...


Yes. To run a game any other way, without some future in view at all times, leads to the sort of shallow game you're preaching, working and playing against. You make a pretty strong and eloquent case for just such campaigning in your 10K word post.