Wednesday, December 19, 2018

RPG 201, Lab #3 ~ Setting

Welcome to the 3rd Lab.  Our goal is to discuss player experience, development and expansion, in such a manner that the players grow from being common, ordinary adventurers into entities that have the power to affect and redesign the setting to satisfy their needs, enabled and supported by the Dungeon Master.  And while the game rules do not change, the power the players gain over their environment does.

Most participants never experience this aspect of role-playing.  For them, the game is a linear model that resets itself with every adventure.  As we discussed in the last class, the players equip, venture out, achieve the goal ... and then repeat this process with the next adventure.  Each adventure differs in detail and as the party progresses in power, the adventures progress in potential threat and value of the reward.  However, the structure of the adventure does not change; each element is repeated until the players either achieve a level that denies further promise of adventure or tire of the setting, the game form or the Dungeon Master.

Clearly, the linear model offers success in game satisfaction, for a time; and it offers a structure that can be sustained by a single individual preparing for adventure after adventure.  Further, the structure can be pre-designed, enabling the individual to bypass much tedious preparation ~ and enables the same pre-designed module to be employed again with a different party at a different time.

But while the linear model is much praised among many participants of role-playing, it is limited when the consequences of the players' adventuring is ignored ~ which they usually are, because most DMs prefer a closed linear model.  Let us, instead, speak of an open linear model.

At the start of the campaign, game play begins just as we expect.  The players Discover the adventure, either through information they receive or circumstances they observe ~ what is usually called a "plot hook."  The adventure needs to be sufficient to draw the players in, but we have plenty of examples of that so we need not expand here.

The plot hook will inherently give the players reason to Pursue a course of action AND a viable reward.  Within the heroic model, this includes the vanquishing of malevolence and the preservation of innocents, but it also includes the acquisition of things, with the accumulation of wealth and power.  There is also the novelty of doing something new and different.  But here we add three additional rewards that do more than expand the ability of the players: status, purpose and enlightenment.

Briefly, Status not only rewards the players with additional privileges and access to benefits and help, it makes others positively aware of the players ~ that is, persons of power see the players as beneficiaries to the kingdom, as persons worthy of giving advice, as allies and as friends.  Purpose addresses specific player interests in righting widespread wrongs, not just in this particular adventure, but in other potential adventures.  As the player examines their purpose, whatever it might be, this purpose ~ and not the next journey there and back ~ becomes the driving force behind the players' actions.  Enlightenment, in turn, expands what the players understand and know about the setting, allowing them to refine, or even change, their initial purpose.  With comprehension of the big picture of the setting, they begin to realize their sense of worth. They matter.  In time, they will not be easily restrained in their purpose, once they know what they are able to accomplish.

With these things in mind, we need to understand what Effect the adventure has on the game setting.  In the closed linear model, none.  The adventure is over.  In the open model, however, the adventure itself causes something about the game setting to change.  There is a consequence.  The removal of a powerful entity creates a power vacuum.  Persons beyond the party gain something from the goal the players did not expect.  Thorin is placed successfully on the throne but the one ring is found.  The course of events do not cease when the adventure is finished; the adventure gives birth to new developments, new threats, new challenges.

With the open model, we encourage the players at the end of the adventure to understand that the setting has Changed, and that the change is irrevocable.  We draw a direct line between their actions and the change ... whatever has happened, the players are responsible.  They can face their responsibility, taking the next step to better the situation, or they can flee their responsibility, the choice is up to them.  They cannot, however, pretend that the responsibility was not theirs; they chose to adventure; they creating the consequences; and now the consequences, for good or ill, will play out regardless of the players' involvement.  This after-shock is critical in providing enlightenment and purpose to the campaign; and to the players benefit, having accomplished the adventure, the DM provides them with status and aid that will enable them to address the consequence of it.

The inclusion of status, as well as the increased resources that are common among closed models, provides a Coherence to the campaign.  The next adventure is not an isolated experience; it plays directly upon the accomplishment and rewards of the previous adventure.  The setting, far from static, moves and rolls as the players manipulate events, even through their small actions.  The players' influence the campaign just as the campaign influences the players.  Soon the players recognize that the second adventure, to fix the problems of the first, will itself have consequences ... so that rather than repeating itself, the open model expands and expands as it reacts to each thing the players achieve.

Some might imagine that the consequences of every adventure, to ensure player involvement, should necessarily be bad.  The players empty a dungeon, so something worse moves into it, so the players have to empty the dungeon again, so that something even worse happens, etcetera.  This would make a very poor open model, one that would quickly discourage the players.  Rather, we should suppose that some neutral consequence happens, that the players realize they can capitalize upon; followed by another neutral, but greatly interesting consequence, allowing more capitalization, more opportunity to expand their purpose, a chance to enlighten themselves further and establish their status to a greater degree.  Neutral opportunities are risky, dangerous, sometimes negative, sometimes positive ... but always suggestive that there is some balance the players can achieve.

As adventures pass, with consequences, status and purposes growing in number and complexity, the players should be able to sense a Crescendo in their future.  A point where the matter will be ultimately resolved; where the players' involvement alone may not be enough; a moment of true reckoning, where everything that has been fought for and everything that opposes that accumulation will come face-to-face, once and for all.  That crescendo can be put off, again and again, for a long time; or the players can actively pursue it.  Sooner or later, however, it will arrive.  All can be sure of it.

And when it does, a Resolution will be made.  Vast matters will be settled.  Powers greater than the players will negotiate and everyone, players included, will agree to respect the boundaries that are named.  Whereupon ... the players will pick up some small consequence of an earlier adventure, one too small to deserve their attention before, and begin to expand their setting in another adventure.

How is this done?  The DM must perceive that the players are entitled to a Back Stage pass where the world is concerned.  The DM provides the players with insight into how the setting's variable layers are designed.  The layers of politics, the layers of capital, the layers of religion, the layers underlying how creatures of great power, from gods to unfathomable monsters, inter-relate and intermix with one another, high over the player's heads.  With this enlightenment, we wish the players to always answer the question, how do they view the world now that they know this?  Is the world bigger than they expected?  More complicated?  Friendlier?  Scarier?  And knowing this, how do the players fit in?  Forget their petty backgrounds or problems ... in the grand narrative of the millions who occupy the game setting, where powers that clash far outweigh the players' hit points or potential damage, how will the players negotiate all so that they, too, might someday clash with the greatest of them?

This is more than a matter of letting the players accumulate upgrades and items of power.  The players will need more than their own party; they will need allies, safe places, a means to turn enemies into friends, self-awareness against their own pride and impatience and an ever greater understanding of just what they're up against.

That is as much a struggle for the DM as it is for the players, for it is the DM who must determine what this setting is!  How it is layered, how the interactions occur, what is the grand narrative and how is it made?  For the rest of the course we will be tackling these larger issues, as we introduce the setting in structure, function and behaviour.

Take care, and Merry Christmas.


Vlad Malkav said...

This is what I call a Christmas present ! ^^

Amusingly, in my current campaign I was growing tired of not having enough time to prepare things as well as I wanted, and thought my players would feel less interested.
Surprise, they are engaged and don't want to stop. I did somewhat wonder why, so I asked my best friend (one of the players), and it is exactly what you presented here : I Enlighten them on the setting, they are driven by their own Purpose, Pursuing objectives, and by doing so have an Effect on the setting, etc.

It is a behaviour I follow since quite some time, but the ruleset used for this campaign has something new : it covers mechanical ways for the players to advance their relations with NPC communities, upgrade their own community, put forth decrees having effects on the game world, etc. - thus providing them with tools and insight into the workings of the setting, the Backstage Pass ...

So, this is a great post. You put into clear words what I was grasping, adding avenues of thoughts to push it further, and it links perfectly into your previous posts.


Alexis Smolensk said...

Thank you Vlad. I hope to be able to fulfill the promise I made at the end of the lab. I feel it is a mighty task and I worry about it.

Vlad Malkav said...

Indeed, you bit quite the chunk with this promise. However, you've tackled much already, and your approach, precisely deconstructing and analyzing the resulting parts, will probably do wonders here too.
Can't wait to see it ...

Alexis Smolensk said...

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can ...

Sterling Blake said...

I haven't commented in a long while, and I don't have anything insightful to say now, but I do want to offer the encouragement that your words are being read, appreciated, and awaited with anticipation. Merry Christmas to you too, Alexis!

Mic B said...

as others have said, this is a great Christmas gift from you.
We know you can and it is going to be enlightening to read.

Merry Christmas to you Alexis