Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Further Obvious Insights

The process of generating situations in the way that I described yesterday is much, much easier for me when the style of the game is a well-established sort of beast. It's stupidly easy in a bizarre mega-dungeon, and it's fairly easy when I'm imitating a game that I've played in myself. Right now, for instance, I'm running a game for Dangerfox that's based on the game I've been playing with Trollsmyth for years. The setting is based on the one that Trollsmyth uses, the situation is very similar to the one I've been playing in for years, and I know the kind of scenes that I want to achieve. Most importantly, I know the kinds of goals that Dangerfox's character needs to have to make those scenes interesting, and I have a rough idea of how to give him the opportunity to develop those goals. If he doesn't, I have some ideas for how to adapt the game to accommodate other sorts of motivations.

That's really what's important here: Player and character goals. I've been making the mistake, in a lot of these games, of trying to get my players to do my work for me -- of looking to them to define the game, on the thought that they'll enjoy it more and it'll be easier for me if it's based on "what they want." Which is absolutely and endlessly true, but it doesn't do me any good if I don't know what kinds of situations to present at the table. I just sit there throwing either random situations based on my notes (or thin air) at them, or "logical" (ish) responses to their own actions, and without any yardstick for what makes a "good" scene I just keep getting more and more nervous, without any idea of what's "right" or any foundation for moving my notes or ideas or whatever else it is I'm bringing to the table into the game. It doesn't really matter if those notes came from me or the players: they're not the point.

Goals, though. Goals are something that only the players can come up with, and that can provide me a firm foundation on which to build something that I know is interesting, and fun, and that I can properly referee. A situation can always be built on the foundation of "here is something the player's want, and here is an obstacle in their way." A more interesting scene can similarly be built out of "here are two things the players want, set up in some way that they can only have one of them." (Unless, of course, they are very clever.) If I know the players (and characters) goals, then I have the game. A lot of my communication with players has historically been about determining what their aims are in-game; lately, I've been thinking as well about how to give them the information that they need to devise interesting goals.

That's another problem with these recent games: I've just been throwing "stuff" at the players in the early sessions, and hoping that they come up with interesting ideas about what to do with it. It'd be much easier, for everyone involved, to come up with a proper adventure, with some pre-loaded goals, at the very beginning, and allow players to develop their own ideas from there, once we're properly into the game. Much less flailing about for everyone.

Probably the most important thought I've had along these lines is that there are certain situations that I just can't render with any fidelity. There are a lot of situations that I either don't know enough about, don't have enough interest in, or can't picture clearly enough in my mind to be able to describe well enough that the players have enough information to make decisions about, in a granular way. In response, I've been attempting to get more comfortable with and confident at abstracting these situations.

For instance: I know nothing about wilderness survival. My spatial imagination is similarly underdeveloped. (Seriously -- my attempts to draw maps of places I spend every day in go hilariously awry because I just can't picture them properly, never mind imaginary places I've never been.) So it's difficult for me to handle a party running around the woods from simply a map and a key. Considering that this is what Trollsmyth, in the Pathfinder game I've been running for him lately, is doing, this has been a bit of a problem. I've discovered, though, that a general idea of the terrain, a random encounter chart, and the Survival skill have been good enough for me to fake it. I can take a point on the map and a few rolls and say, "Okay, here's where & how you found that thing you were trying to get," or "Here's what the area immediately around you looks like, and here's a Problem." I don't have a damn clue what any of the stuff inbetween these little interludes looks like, really, ("You walk for 2 miles through...") but it's enough to run a game on.


  1. Ok, that makes perfect sense. (I'd recommend front-loading goals, but that only works so well, especially if the player hasn't internalized the goals in question; they may say they're all about avenging a dead father, but if they don't behave like that's their goal, it doesn't do you any good.)

    You're doing a great job so far with the out-doorsy stuff in the Pathfinder. Honestly, even if you did have a better grasp on it, you'd probably still want to handle things this way. This is why I usually don't bother with maps of cities; there's no point in "crawling" a friendly city, going block-to-block, when the PCs can generally just ask someone where things are and how to get to them. Much better to just hand-wave getting to the corner store or the wizards' guild and get right to the interesting part.

  2. Oh, and I wanted to ask: do you have any tips for encouraging players to develop goals? You kinda imply up there that you're gently nudging Dangerfox towards certain goals, but are clearly not forcing them on him.

  3. Goals require context. For something to be worthwhile, it must be in comparison to something else. There's an art of providing enough context to generate goals without that context smothering individual initiative. One way to think about this: develop goals without much concern for the "story" between "here" and "there" - your players should be able to provide that.

    Just some thoughts.

  4. trollsmyth: Tips? Not really. Still just thinking about the problem.

    The game I'm running for Dangerfox is going to pretty much require player-originated goals and I'm trying to do my best to give him the information he needs to come up with them well before they'll become necessary. I'm still figuring out how to do that. Failing that, I'm also considering some more direct options if for some reason that becomes necessary.

    Victor Raymond: Yeah. It's an information problem. Also some kinds of games readily accept GM-provided goals and others require player-provided ones. Depends on how much the players have to care about the goals in question.

  5. These last few posts, despite my comments dropping off, have been really helpful to me.

    I think one solution to players not having enough context to have their own goals is to give them short-term goals that are specific in execution but general enough in result that the players are attracted by them.

    For example, there are lots of missions or pieces of information that players can be given at the beginning of a game that require certain actions (go into this dungeon and find this, kill this guy, break into this house and steal this, defend this Lord's vassal village, take this certificate of exchange to the moneyhouse in this city, deliver this item to this person, etc., etc.) but that all result in what most players are after when the first sit down to a D&D game without doing any pre-thinking about it: gold.

    Then comes the tricky part that I'm not so good at, I think: introducing enough of the setting to the players through what happens to the characters that the players develop their own goals for the characters before the temporary goals you gave them at the beginning of the game run out…

  6. I've just left a comment on the previous post, but it's worth mentioning it here again in this context. As far as player goals go, they don't have to be conscious choices; a player may have a hard time answering "What are your goals?" if you just come right out with it, but they may reveal that information during the game at the table, without realising it.

    "Wouldn't it be cool if X happened?" is a player goal, even if the player may not intend it as such, so it pays to listen to table chat.

  7. This is a very late comment but one I really wanted to make:

    Research. None of us know everything about everything. Writers and creatives of all kinds are faced with this problem often; hence the advice to "write about what you know". While some people see that as being restrictive, I see it as a call to action: if you don't know something, research it.

    Go out in the countryside. Read travel literature, or accounts of famous explorers. Watch movies and documentaries that are about wilderness survival and travel.

    The internet is one of the best tools humankind has ever had when it comes to this stuff. I'm running an archipelago campaign at the moment and boy if I haven't learned a hell of a lot about sailing and the history of sea-travel. And I've loved every minute of it. Let your curiosity guide you.