Sunday, May 20, 2018

Bend Your Mind

If you've not been following along with this series, you'll want to start with this index post, with a list of the foregoing content relative to what's written below.

Here we are.  On the precipice of making an adventure.  The adventure of the town of Stavanger.  And you, Dear Reader, are naturally waiting for me to get started, supposing through all this build up that I have some sort of plan, a sequence of events that will enable the party to overcome some set of obstacles that will make them into heroes.  Or rich villains.  Or at least alive at the end with more experience.  Any of which will do at this point, because for most of you, all this build is still just a blank sheet of paper.  Which we have to fill by writing something.  Somehow.

I could just "write" an adventure for Stavanger; it's just time and effort.  And having something to say.  I've been practicing at having something to say for four decades.  But I do not propose to make an adventure here for its own sake, so that it will simply exist.  I want it as a template used to teach others; to empower them past that blank sheet of paper.

Let's talk about "game feel."

Apart from the mechanical construction of the game, or the theoretical supposition that is the metagame, or the kinesthetic process of learning the game through actual game play, there is a deeper, underlying aspect that is almost entirely missed by most players.  Throughout the game's play, the structure and function of the game must transmit messages through its design that produce an emotional response, often one that is invisible to the participant.  Here we're talking about the way the die hits the table and bounces before you find yourself hunching over to look at it; or the hesitation in the DM's eye before you hear what monster has walked through the door; or the tone of voice of the other players as they respond to ... whatever.  The quality of everyone's game is tempered by how much of this emotional "feel" is positive and enticing, and how much of it is missing.  Completely missing.  And you've been there.

The reason why a DM tries to change tone of voice while speaking about the dead that has just risen is game feel.  It isn't just that the dead monster is rising; or that dead monsters, once they have risen, will roll such and such a die when they attack; or that you're encountering this monster for the first time in the game, or that the monster resulted because of something your character decided to do.  If that was all D&D offered, it would be a dull, uninteresting game.

But it isn't.  Because human beings have the capacity to make other human beings feel or believe things instinctively, in an off-handed and spontaneous way that video consoles can't do.  A dedicated, talented video designer can spend thousands of hours building a game that will get this response out of you (as something like Limbo can), but human beings can do this in mere seconds, even without being good at it.  Even an uncertain DM can make the dead rising sound scarier with a slight tonal shift, as we human beings are built to respond in just that way.  This is role-playing's strongest suit; that it is played with human beings.

Okay ... but how does the uncertain DM know to sound scarier in that moment, or how to sound scarier?  That, O Reader, is cultural memory.  The DM doesn't have to think about it; the dead rising, that's a cultural thing.  We've grown up with it.  The dead are scary.  We've all thought about it.  And when you think of it, even enough to feel it a little, you know exactly how you're supposed to sound when you want to scare someone else.

We like being cheered on, to do well, before rolling the dice.  And to cheer on others.  Why?  Because it feels good.  It makes no sense.  And now and again, a player will remark on how little sense it makes.  The die isn't going to roll differently.  It has nothing to do with what we say before or after we roll.  But we feel that is does; and we feel the urge to cheer others on.  Because we have a long cultural history of that; and we like that the game gives us a place to express ourselves, in that way.

When our sword hits an opponent, we make a swing with our arm, like we really have a sword in it.  If we're at a table where it feels safe to express ourselves that we, the game is better.  When the DM encourages it with similar movements, the game is better.  When the die roll is emotionally interpreted, the game is better.  When we can yell and shout when things are going well, or grumble when they're going badly, or be emotional in the face of adversity, the game is better.

When someone reads something I write about building blocks and trade systems, or removing the story, or having more rules, they perceive in their imaginations that this will turn the game into a boxed-in, calculating, soulless, bookkeeping nightmare, which will suck out all of the fun.  Most gamers have sat through games where DMs spent the night digging through reams of paper for small answers to uninteresting questions, or comparing every die roll to yet another chart, or tediously demanding players account for every arrow fired, every morsel of food eaten and every ounce carried.  And when the DM is incapable of handling that density of information quickly, immediately and directly, the game is bad.  Oh, so bad.

So here is where we must start in using these building blocks.  They must be alive.  They must breathe.  They must be human beings.  They must possess the juice that makes the mechanical aspect of their existence recede into the distance, leaving only the satisfying feel that they might offer the players, who are enacted to live part of their lives in this place.

How ... oh how, do we do that?

To begin with, we have to bend our minds around corners. We are so used to thinking in the mechanics and theoretical aspects of the game, we forget it is about feel.  Feeling is life.  Life is made meaningful by moments of having control; by reacting to stimuli; by having a context, like the terror of the dead rising, in which the players can believe and which reflects the players' other life; by adding details that influence the players' senses ~ how does this feel, smell, move, grab, sting, whatever sensation we can convey with words; by having actions mean something, consequence, reward, a reason to feel proud, a reason to regret; and finally, by boundaries, limitations, things that players can bang their heads against and find, sometimes, that they're real and that, sometimes, they're not.

We can write a long time on these six things.  And I have, on this blog.  For now, let's just try to keep them in mind: agency; response; context; sensation; meaning; and boundaries.

[In the interest of disclosure, I'm paraphrasing work that has been done by others.  In my defense, this is a new concept; it is sadly applied only to video games, and rather prejudiciously in my opinion; and that RPGs require a different language to make the meaning clear.  So I have proposed it]

I know this isn't very helpful.  Rest assured I'm not done.  But you've got to bend.  Because this stuff isn't easy; it is only now, late in life, with the help of an endless internet flow of material, and contact with very smart people, that I'm getting a handle on this, on how it formulates and manifests.  It isn't going to be ten simple sentences and the clouds will part and you'll understand how to invent things.  It doesn't work that way.

Try, as best you can, to keep this game feel stuff in your head, and recognize that anytime you can get any of those six elements in your game, your game will improve.

Now let's talk about tragedy.

Those people who are telling you, Reader, that the game is about "story," are very sadly misinformed about what a story is, or how it happens.  When stories are not comedies (and let's understand, comedy is when we're certain that the story is sure to come out all right), they're tragedies.  Very few role-players are interested in running their characters through comedies ... and though it has been "tried," it hasn't really been tried, because even if you think you've run your character through a comedy, you haven't.  If you think you have, you don't understand comedy.  I suggest you read a book.

Very well, tragedy.  Tragedies are dramas based on human suffering.  The tradition has been that misfortune is brought on by some decision that is made, or fundamental depravity, character flaw or frailty, that ultimate comes to fruition with the result that the character dies, others die, kingdoms fall, people suffer generally and the audience is both amused and reconciled with their own weaknesses and mortality.  This is exactly what players play to see if it will occur.

There are many kinds of tragedy, and many kinds of drama that are supposed to not be tragedy, such as melodrama, epic drama, mystery plays, morality plays, farces and miracle plays.  Understand, for everything except tragedy, it is absolutely necessary that the story plays out in a single way, in which the main character cannot fail or die.  In tragedy, anyone can fail and everyone can die.  So if we're going to talk about "story" and "role-playing," we are absolutely talking about tragedy.  I know some will disagree.  But they're wrong.

As the reader knows, I don't believe in "story-telling" games ... but I will concede the point that every non-player character, prior to meeting the party, has stories to tell: about their own life, about the lives of their friends, about people and fantasies the teller has never met.  These stories are both truths and lies; they are signposts of character; they are clues to adventure; they are deceptions designed to lead players to their deaths.  These stories are many things; and just as I can say this about all the stories we could collectively tell together, O Reader, these stories are legion.

What we need to do is to put these stories into the heads of the people who dwell in Stavanger; and then leave it to the players to decide which stories are true and false; which stories are empty or full of intent; which stories are designed to enlighten and which are designed to obfuscate or mislead.  Some of our villagers are, yes, signposts.  But some are inaccurate signposts.  As DMs, we're here to know which are which ... and to let the players make the wrong decisions, and perhaps pay dearly for that.

Some of these stories do exist to help the players; but not because the players are heroes, but because some of the people in our little village have an honest and willing motivation to be friendly and helpful.  NO ONE exists because the party exists.  These people, we must think, would exist if the party were never here.

This way, the player characters are the enactment of their own deeds, and not our deeds.  They are the victims of our generosity and our malevolence, both, but most of all, the victims of their own insistence that we, as DMs, surely tilt one way or the other.  The player who will insist everyone in the world is a villain, because the DM prefers villains, will lose chances at friends ~ while the player that insists everyone is a friend, because the DM is the player's friend, will soon fall victim to a villain.  This is not our problem.  We are gifted with the privilege of deciding for ourselves how many villains and friends our world will possess, and in what number, and the balance be damned.  The player's dilemma is never knowing one way or the other, or how many, and that is just too damn bad.  For that is the world we live in now, friends.

So in deciding the residents of our village, let us keep tragedy firmly in our thoughts.  Let us dwell upon how agency empowers the player to ward off tragedy or succumb to it.  Or upon how the player responds to tragedy.  Or how the player will find context for tragedy, making or not making sense of it.  Or how tragedy feels, or looks, or tastes in our mouth, or suggests itself in the faces of strangers, or in the change of the wind, or the darkness of water when black clouds gather.  Or in what it means about other tragedies that might be waiting.  Or what boundaries tragedy has thus made, which can be overcome, or cannot.

Let your minds be fertile, O Tragedians.  We are not done yet.

Let's talk about unpacking characters.

Because we are going to have a lot of characters in this village.  And if we are going to have some idea of how the players are going to interact with them, and what the players will want to do in order to get on the villager's good sides, and unlock some of that sweet, sweet adventuring goodness, we're going to want to identify what motivations the villagers have.

What do they need?  Or want?  What knowledge do they possess, and in what form?  Are the players a match for the strongest, the most courageous or aggressive of them?  Are the players kind enough, understanding enough, fair enough.  Should a player show mercy or indifference, when the time comes?  Is this a time for prudence or rashness?  Can the players be properly grateful for less than they wanted?  Can they give back, if they get more than wanted?  Where are lines the players must walk, always understanding that too much this way or that will mean confrontation, loss of respect, humiliation or exile?

Remember, we want a village that exists in and of itself.  If the players enter, make a bargain, stay nearby a night or two, accept hospitality and choose to move on, without investing themselves, the village remains as it was, content and unchanged, as if the player had never been there.  As DMs, we lose nothing.  It is up to the players to investigate, take risks, engender good will, stir up confrontation and come away with gain that they have earned themselves.  It is our role to place the gains, make the lock, determine how it is unlocked and then cover it up with slime or flowers, whatever we think will obscure the view of the buried lock from the players.

They ought to know the locks are there; one in each building block.  But we won't stick signs in the ground to say where they are buried ... well, perhaps a few, if we're generous.  The players will have to dig.

That slime, those flowers, these are the villagers.  One villager is the creative sort, who knows where the lock is but needs encouragement, support, or perhaps a moment of straight talk.  In another place, the players must be curious, to hear a story a few times and guess where the lock might be.  In another block, the right move might be inaction, as the players watch a little girl beaten half to death, for a "crime" that seems harsh and wrong.  Yet this may be the culture, and the players must be open minded here.  Players may be asked to give their perspective, and may give it poorly.  Or players may find their love of learning has come to the wrong, or perhaps the right place.

I am not simply drawing these out of the air.  Two years ago, I put up a post of 24 character strengths, which sits conveniently in the sidebar, voted by readers as one of my ten best posts, ever (at least up to 2017).  Those strengths are reflected by 24 weaknesses.  Where there is bravery, there is cowardice.  Where someone in the village may be in love, others will hate.  While one resident may be a loyal citizen, another will be a traitor and a scoundrel.  Where one chief might forgive, another will condemn. Where there is spirituality, there is doubt and nihilism.

It is our task to settle on which of these is the strength, or the weakness, or more than one, of the personality I suggested each block, and each clan, should possess.  The guidebook is already written.  We only need to decide what the consequences of each are.  How does "hope" play out; what is wanted, or needed, by those who hope?  The return of someone who is lost?  A cure for an illness?  A win in an upcoming tournament?  The restoration of someone's reputation?  It is up to us.  Sit for awhile, wrap your minds around the idea of hope, and things will come.

Then we only need to make that hope manifest.  We, as DMs, know where the someone is.  Or if the illness can be cured.  Or who will most likely win.  Or if the reputation deserves restoration.  We know everything.  But the players don't.  They're bound to find out.

Each block has a story.  A story of despair, of integrity or criminality, of social wellbeing or social destruction, of humor, of ugliness, of 48 different categories of human motivation.

Throw in some monsters for color, some influence from outside quarters, the eternal issues of man vs. nature, and all you have to do from then on is make it all make sense somehow.  Then you'll understand why making an adventure is just "time and effort."  The paper is already full of words.  You only have to bend your mind so you can see them.

For more on this narrative, see this post on Comedy.


Embla Strand said...

A good, thought-provoking read. Thank you for this.

Ozymandias said...

I'm now envisioning a relationship between NPC personality ~ randomly assigned when the character is generated ~ and a town's (or block's) personality.

Let's say this one block is known for fairness. It's the predominant trait of that community. Thus, NPCs who love there (or belong to that community) will be more inclined to have traits relating to justice. Obviously, other traits are possible, but I'm not quite sure how to break up the mix. And there needs be a chance of getting a negative result.

I'll see what I can come up with...

Alexis Smolensk said...

I think randomness would be a mistake. Some creativity has to be handled by people.

Ozymandias said...

I'm thinking to provide myself the option to add randomness to the mix. The tool ~ a program that references a series of interconnected charts ~ "asks" for input from the user. Certain input must be filled in, like race or location in the world. Other data fields are optional; if the user puts something in there, that's what the program uses; otherwise, it produces a random result.

Discord said...

Wow. Alexis, this whole series is simply amazing! I feel like you're really breaking ground about the game in a way that nobody else is. I can't give enough praise for what you're doing here. I'm going to be signing up for your Patreon shortly, as there is no one else writing this quality of work. Bravo!

Discord said...

My own blog has zero readership, and is a work in progress, but I added a glowing review for you, and a link:

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thank you Discord. That is much appreciated.

Drain said...

Game running as tragedy and precepts of game feel, bends upon bends to wrap the mind around. An exceedingly compelling read, Alexis.

Vlad Malkav said...

Shared on Google+ and on an RPG Facebook group - although the language barrier will hamper it much :/ .

Still, the whole serie is great, and this one is very insightful. I have to make a cheat-sheet of your best items to review before each running ^^

Jorunkun said...

I don't know what you're smoking there, but it must be good stuff.

I've been following this blog for a couple of years, and this is something special you're on to.