Thursday, December 8, 2011

But What Do You Do?!

According to my statistics, I have over 3,000 page views for Dangerous Games. I figure that approximately 2,000 of those are me, checking to see if anyone's commented anywhere... What can I say, I'm a Cancer, and I'm needy. I think it's time that we investigate the other side of the concept equation, and talk about the "what do you do?" in your game.

After all, the game has to be about something. And by "something" I don't mean existential angst or fighting The Man, or some other overly-broad meta-theme. What you're supposed to be doing in the game has to be clearly defined.

One of my friends, Chrystal Andros (Hi, Chrystal!), has been complaining to me about her current campaign. The Gamemaster hasn't clearly defined what it is the group is supposed to be doing. So they bumble around, trying to figure out what their characters are supposed to be doing. This is frustrating, for obvious reasons. It's bad enough that her GM hasn't focused his campaign, but it's even worse when the game itself doesn't clearly define what you're supposed to be doing.

When we designed the Star Trek RPG, I insisted on a list of "Things To Do" for each of the shows. You explore new worlds in The Original Series. You negotiate a peace treaty between two warring planets in TNG. You smuggle disruptors in DS9. You try not to kill yourself because you're stuck on ship for the next 70 years with Captain Janeway in Voyager.... Even though a lot of the stuff on those lists were interchangable -- you could negotiate a treaty in a TOS game, too -- it was important to me that we convey a sense of the kinds of things you could do with the game. It wasn't just that DS9 games were different from TOS games, but that there were concrete things to do.

Let's say that your game is about fighting The Man. Let's call it the OWS RPG. (Hey, I can be topical.) It's all about corporate oppression and greed, and crony capitalism, and a dysfunctional political system. Clearly, you play the protesters, because people want to play the hero. There's a bongo skill, and a saving throw vs. pepper spray... But what do you do in this game? What does "fighting The Man" mean? You have to define it practically, in terms of adventures. You protest foreclosures. You march on banks. You occupy city hall. Of course, because this is an RPG, you take this further (or is it "farther"?). You fantasy it up. You make it like a dystopic cyberpunk future. You basically rip off that 1984 Macintosh computer advert. (Originally, I wrote practical adventure ideas, but I deleted them. I don't need the cops showing up at my door. Seriously.)

Sometimes, this can come back to bite you, especially if you script the central conflict too tightly. I began to see this with White Wolf products. The Ventrue didn't like the Brujah, so every time you got two players playing their respective characters in the group, you got four hours of bickering. It got worse in another game, which I won't mention by name. But you could play a vampire, a Templar, a were-cat and you were fighting... something. And since every character type had a reason not to get along with every other character type, which I guess was supposed introduce conflict, I had a hard time figuring out what players were supposed to do (besides bicker with each other). Keep the central conflict out of the character classes. Give players reasons to work together. And give them concrete things to do.

You've got to keep the players (including the GM) focused. But that does not mean railroading them into your story line. As has been pointed out, Deadlands had a fairly scripted setting. But I could ignore that. I could, if I wanted to right now, play a Deadlands game that had nothing to do with that game's central story. I could play Red Dead Redemption with it, or Butch and Sundance, or Unforgiven, or Pale Rider... I could ignore what I wanted and play what I wanted to.

The idea is to provide many different things to do with your game, but not so many as to become meaningless. And not be so restrictive that the players feel railroaded into playing The One True Way. It's their game. Give them enough information to stimulate their imaginations, then get the hell out of the way.

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