Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Shaman's Block and More

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.

Before continuing with the Stavanger 9th century adventure [content below], I'd like to press the subject of game feel and tragedy a little further.  The reader may remember I drew out six mechanics relating to player participation: agency, response, context, sensation, meaning and boundaries.  I recognize that it is difficult to keep these things in mind, as it is with any list, just as it is hard to remember the seven rewards that we want to provide players (wealth, toys, power, status, novelty, enlightenment and purpose), or the four points we want to provide for building blocks (service, personality, adventure and value).  I count 17 terms that the reader was unfamiliar with just a month ago and, no doubt, it is next to impossible to keep all these things in one's head at one time.  Add to that the 24 petards and it is enough to make anyone throw their hands in the air.

I suggest deep breathing.

For years you've been looking for frameworks that would help you better construct adventures. These are the frameworks.

Let me quickly paraphrase what we've established with this recent Stavanger adventure.  The chieftain wants to expand the village; he is dealing with four recalcitrant bully boys; the bully boys may or may not have been lax in their work, resulting in the death of a child, who was killed by a wolf.  The wolf has been caught by the shaman.  The shaman has organized a hunt.  Whoever kills the wolf will sleep with the dead child's mother and a new child will be born.

This, as far as I know, is a novelty in terms of player reward: a kind of adventure introducing problems that haven't come up before.  Are the players offended at the idea?  Possibly.  Would they take part if they did kill the wolf?  Some players, definitely not; others, perhaps.  Few, I think, would be champing at it.  But even if the idea is offensive, it is still new.  The players are not being denied their agency.  In fact, they are being given an opportunity to establish their agency.  They can say, No.  And face the consequences.  Those consequences being uncertain, given that the whole village seems ready to take part in this adventure.

So the player's response is in jeopardy.  They may, if they wish, escape from Stavanger at once and set out for another place ... but any party of mine, having played in my world for even a few sessions, knows that there's just going to be another similar dilemma put in front of them.  We cannot improve our lives by running away from difficult-to-thread situations.  Run away, and any reward is lost.  Rewards come from the party making up their minds, standing their ground, taking the consequences, and winning through.  They may choose poorly ~ but that is the risk inherent in this game.  Here are two, perhaps three, questionable options, any one of which could lead to tragedy.  Choose.  Respond.

The players will naturally seek context.  They are told by their family to see the shaman.  So we describe the shaman's block.  This is the last block I'm going to create an image for; by now, the reader gets the idea.

The shaman's lodge, as I said earlier, is occupied by the lowest residents in Stavanger. These are people without clans, whose people have almost entirely vanished, or who come from outside Rogaland, though likely not further than neighboring Agder, or Hordaland, that surrounds Bergen ~ which I've twice confused with "Haugaland."  Fixed those instances on the blog now.

These hangers on have no real influence, and are entirely dependent on the shaman.  Effectively, they exist as a cheerleading squad for the shaman, and as protection.  A player wouldn't be able to lift a spear in the shaman's presence without being mobbed.  A hit on the shaman would find a follower in the way ... making the shaman virtually invulnerable.  The personality of the hex IS the shaman; somewhat spiritual and quietly fanatic (no one speaks until the shaman does).

The shaman knows everything that goes on with the adventure, but what he chooses to tell depends on how the players affect him (basically, how well he is treated, how polite the players are, how smart are the questions they ask and so on).  In this case, it doesn't matter how much the shaman tells the party ~ knowing everything won't spoil the adventure.  But I would hold back information if the players did not ask a particular question, or if they were oblivious, or they were rude.

We could make the shaman oppose the chief's agenda, but we don't actually need that conflict.  And it is cliched.  The shaman would love to see the players kill the wolf, and here's why: if a player, as a hero, is the father of the future chief, that chief will be a mix of the Haralds and the Sands, but because the players are outsiders, the child will be somewhat unique.  So it is the shaman's agenda to say that he foresaw the arrival of the players [he's lying], that they were meant to kill the wolf [he hopes] and towards that end, he will give them a token that will ensure that if they take part, the bearer of the token will be the one the wolf attacks.  This isn't true, but the party will think it is true, particularly since we as DMs intend to attack the party with the wolf.  But afterwards, the party will find the token has no magical value.

The Shaman does not intend to have the hero player sleep with the dead child's mother. This will be planned so that the father sleeps with the mother, but it will look like the player did.  This will be the case no matter who kills the wolf.  The chief, and the village, will believe the falsehood.  However, it will be easier to convince the party, a group of outsiders, to participate in the ruse.  The shaman will provide a +1 spear (reward: toys) for the brave player who will carry the token.

So now the players will receive wealth if they kill the wolf (gifts), status from the chief, a toy from the shaman ... and they have context as to what's going on here.  The shaman will warn the party that if they do participate, there may be conflict with the Orre clan, so "Be careful."

Let's look at the whole village again:

What is the party's sensation, then?

Throughout all that happens, we want to emphasize how it feels to be in this village.  Look at the trees surrounding the shaman's lodge, how relatively peaceful and isolated it is ... and how quiet and contemplative.  Remember the sound of the wolf's jaws and the cage as the wolf hurls its body against it. The wash of the waves on the shore of the lake, the glint of the sun as it reflects off the water.  Think of young cousin Alfdis's eyes as they stare at the party, being touched by the amazing existence of family who come from so far away, a place Alfdis has only heard about.  Think of the chief's gruff voice; the shaman's gentle, patient tones; mother Yulene's snapping at the children while complimenting the party.  THINK of the actual scene, how it would be, how it has to invest itself into the minds of the players.

We have a tendency to think we need great sweeping descriptions of Stavanger, but we don't!  People remember small things.  How cold the water is.  What does the turf covering the roofs of the dugout houses smell like?  How dark and juicy does the cooking meat look like?  How does a pouring rainstorm change the grassy, stony compounds?  How does it feel to wrap one's own furs tight around oneself, in front of the campfire.  Think in small details, then say them out loud when they occur.  You won't be good at it, not at first.  But if you get one good one in per session, players will remember that one good one and forget the rest!

Now, this adventure.  What does it mean?

That's tricky.  We can couch this in a number of ways ... how the events will be remembered by the party, how it will give them experience and tools with which to become stronger and fight their next adventure; we can fit the next adventure somehow into the details of this one, so that the "meaning" is that it made the second adventure possible.

But there's are higher meanings, too ~ I mentioned one already.  There's the notion of facing down a difficult situation and overcoming it, and how that makes the player feel, as opposed to getting out of town when things offend or look hazardous.  There's the sense of seeing the fictional townspeople, who don't actually exist, as existing anyway, because it is immensely satisfying even to pretend that we are doing things for other people (the oxytocin hit is the same).  If we can relate to things like that ... then we can see, as players and as DM, that the adventure becomes about how this series of events will affect the village.

And this is how purpose evolves ... when players feel a direction emerging that doesn't start and end with, "What do I get out of this?"

That brings us to boundaries.

The village, and the immediate wilderness, is a boundary.  Leaving the village before resolving the adventure is a punishment only in that the players won't get the reward.

But IN the village, they must accept the rules of the village: that there are other clans, that will try to block their intentions.  That other members of the village have agendas of their own, unknown to the chief and the shaman.  That the wolf is an unknown variable.  That other unknown variables might be anywhere.  Staying in Stavanger, knowing that there's an adventure in play, puts the players at risk of ... well, anything we might create.

These are the boundaries the players have to win through.  Why would they?  Why do we play games at all?  Consider the video games that you, the reader, personally like to play: side scrollers, first person shooters, puzzle games, whatever. You drift to those games, specifically, because you like the particular boundaries they create.  How many shots you have, how fast you can run and how hard is it.  The agency, yes, carries weight for you, but you like games with a certain kind of boundary.

Role-playing is the same.  If your DM fudges, and you like it, that has to do with the boundary to your play that satisfies you.  If you like the boundary including a virtual guarantee that you'll survive the adventure and succeed at it, and it is enough to go through the motions, because it is interesting for you, fun, pleasant, relaxing, then you'll keep playing those games.

Me, I like games where the boundaries are unpleasant and off-putting.  Where I feel like I'm making progress, and I'm not moving in a circle, or staring at an insolvable problem, but the progress costs.  I like games where the boundaries are not immediately visible.  Where they are virtually inexhaustible in their design.  Where after playing the game for 40 years, I'm not exactly sure where all the boundaries are.  Not yet.


James said...

I feel like whether a player can say "no" probably answers whether players have real agency in any given game.

Vlad Malkav said...

Hello Alexis,

I heartily thank you for giving an example on how to implement the six mechanics. I was thinking a lot about those recently, and it really help to see this, how you do it, and how it threads with the blocks you built.

I'm gaming tonight, and I'll try to keep this in mind.

Thank you ! (and as usual with this series, you're bringing in parts of insightful elements from outside the "traditional" boundaries of RPGs that I find very interesting; I'll buy your Tome 2 on DMing !)

Tim said...

The point on the value of little details is excellent: tying it to the discussion of boundaries, I’ve gotten the impression from time to time that some DMs (myself formerly included) will produce an elaborate plot with many moving pieces to give a sense of a big, wide world, only to have the big static set pieces be bland and bore the players in comparison to some tiny detail that was thrown in. The players can achieve a far greater sense of agency, as James notes, when you let them go deeper into those little details and play with them: that seems to me to be where the boundaries are, not so much in where you run out of worldbuilding but how far the DM is willing to sacrifice their own overarching storytelling aims to focus on what is engaging the players.

Furthermore, if the DM minimizes any moment of player agency (saying no to the grand narrative, for instance) by simply moving the same set pieces around and playing the story out the same way, then they’ve only advanced the same narrative again without listening to what the players are looking for.

The value in little details is precisely what you describe: they’re not as bogged down in artifice or hokey tropes but more often natural elements that ground the game. In my experience, whenever the players can find things like that in the world, they get a way bigger rush than from something grand they have no relationship to.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Oh agreed, Tim!