Random Character Death

October 28, 2007

At a gathering to watch some football last night, roleplaying came up as it inevitably does with this group. It’s the most significant shared experience we have.

One way or another (which is to say, I probably did it but I don’t remember how), we got on the topic of D&D and random character death. And I posed the question “Is random character death ever fun?” I have never seen a circumstance where dice were rolled and a character died that the group was satisfied with. In fact, I’ve seen this occurrence torpedo more than one campaign. We argued about it a lot, and the main contention against removing random character death was that, in order for succeeding to be fun, there needed to be the possibility of failure. This might be true, but I don’t see that failure and death are always connected in either direction. Another problem people had was that they always assume any combat is deadly and so the don’t fight unless they’re willing to die. I hypothesize that this makes more sense in, say, L5R than it does in D&D. Rarely can a fighting problem be resolved by talking in D&D, much more rarely than in L5R. Yet another issue was that sometimes people truly are willing to have their character die in order to accomplish something, and this should be possible.

In any case, this brings me to a bit of technology to deal with making character death happen at appropriate times in the story. Initially I thought that a good way to manage this would be to simply ask before a combat – “Raise your hand if you’re OK dying during this fight.” Someone pointed out that this would totally break their immersion, and would not be acceptable. So, my idea is to give everyone a signaling device that they can set in two positions to indicate whether they are OK with lethality. This could be a poker chip with different colors on each side, a miniature that could be standing or laying down, whatever. The key to it is that the GM needs to be able to see it from across the table so they don’t have to ask and interrupt the game. Some players will never change their answer; they need only set it once per game and leave it there. Other players will be OK with dying if it’s sufficiently epic; these players may switch back and forth.

There might even be consequences of having your signal in both positions. Perhaps if you’re in “non-lethal mode,” you’re responsible for suggesting an appropriate complication other than death, but you get bonuses to social skills. And if you’re in “lethal mode,” you get bonuses to combat, but are responsible for something else. The exact effects of both modes will probably depend on what game you’re playing.

Another Kind of Reward Mismatch

September 14, 2007

In some systems, the characters are rewarded for things the players do.  Take Exalted, for example.  At the end of each session, the GM is instructed to award around 4 XP to everyone.  This encourages attendance, but has nothing to do with character actions.  Stunts in Exalted are another pretty good example.  Bonus dice are awarded for flashy descriptions of combat actions.  The player did the describing, the character gets the reward.

My conjecture comes in two parts.  First, character advancement should be a reward for actions taken by the characters. Second, Players can be rewarded with metagame currencies, such as scene framing powers and narrational authority.  So, character actions like accomplishing character goals or reaching the end of a scenario or situation, as well as taking action to improve one’s skills, should be rewarded with the currency of character advancement or another in-game reward.  Desirable player actions, such as attending sessions, initiating roleplays, and so on, should be rewarded with a currency that allows them to take further player actions to improve the game.

As somewhat of an example, let me throw one bit of technology out there, based on a situation I’ve seen.  In one game I played, being involved in roleplaying scenes was rewarded with experience.  A reasonable question to ask is “Is this the behavior we want to reward?”  I would have to say no, since players may be passively involved in roleplays with the group or NPCs without adding much to the game.  To put a finer point on it, the behavior I think is more appropriate to reward here is “initiating roleplaying scenes,” because doing so promotes involvement in the game and pushes the story forward.

One method for doing that would be to award Narration Points.  An NP allows the player to specify some background action that’s going on in the vicinity of the characters.  If they’re in a city, they might decide that a festival is going on.  If the campaign focuses on an ongoing war between two nations, they might decide that an important battle has been won or lost.  These sorts of background events aren’t intended to have an immediate impact on the story, but they certainly could, since they provide more details to work with.

This is only one possible reward, and there may be more appropriate rewards for this sort of action.  This was the first that came to mind for me.

An Idea on Character Advancement

September 13, 2007

So, how about a system where, for each advanceable attribute/skill/ability/whatever, there’s an in-game goal that needs to be reached in order to get it?  Frex, to get the first rank of “Archery,” you need to convince someone to teach you.  To get the second rank, you need to have a successful hunt.  And so forth.  If the situations were laid out by the game, I think they’d have a strong potential of just “missing” some characters.  So perhaps the players/GM could make them up as they go.  The advantage I see to this is that what is being rewarded matches well with how it is being rewarded.  Also, it includes learning in the story in a significant way.

A bit of tech for starting a campaign

September 13, 2007

I started thinking about what my ideal game would have, and I’ve been forming a list as I think of things.  Maybe someday I’ll put it all together into a game, but for now I’m going to post things as I think of them.  This particular bit of tech comes from these list items.  My ideal game would:

  • Mechanically support external elements that poke at internal conflicts.
  • Support Character Centered Paradigm play.
  • Support campaign style play. 
  • Empower the players to choose themes for the campaign.

So I started thinking about ways to do this, and this is what I came up with.  I’ve tried to keep it system independent, so that it could be used as a way to start a variety of traditional games, and as a way to provide subject matter fuel for ongoing campaigns.

At the very beginning of pre-game prep, before character creation proper, each player constructs a one-sentence character concept and picks an internal conflict.  Then the other players create a game element that provokes this internal conflict in some way – a Foil.  A Foil has some maximum number of details it may contain, depending on how detailed a situation is desired.  Five seems reasonable, ten seems pretty detailed.  For each detail a player adds to another player’s Foil, they get a point.  A player can veto a particular detail suggested for their Foil by spending a point.  In this case, the player who suggested the detail is awarded no points.  Then each player decides on a condition which will indicate that their Foil is no longer relevant to their internal conflict.

Once each player’s Foil is fully detailed, the players begin to build the current situation.  One round of the situation building process works like this: each player suggests one aspect of the current situation, and bids up to 3 points to make it happen.  Any other player can veto the suggestion for an equivalent number of points.  If the suggestion is not vetoed, this aspect becomes part of the current situation and the player who suggested it spends the appropriate number of points.  At the end of the round, if any player still has points, another round commences until there are no remaining points.

Finally, each player forms a goal related to the current situation, and the players agree on a condition which signals the end of the current story arc.  Over the course of the story arc, players earn points by accomplishing their goals and reaching the condition that makes their Foil irrelevant.  If that situation also resolves their internal conflict, the player earns a point and chooses a new internal conflict.  When the story arc concludes, the group creates Foils for any character without one, and the situation building process recommences.

I haven’t yet worked out the exact details of what is worth how many points and so forth, but I expect some ideas about that will come from playtesting.  Of course, this system isn’t for everyone.  It’s specifically tailored to support a style of play I enjoy, which others may not.  But maybe it’s worth a shot just to see if it results in more useful character backgrounds, supporting cast, and character goals for the GM to play with.

EDIT: This also seems like a way to let the GM focus on plot (as they often want to), instead of situation, at least at first.

Reward Systems

September 5, 2007

Somewhere recently (probably the Knife Fight) I came across the idea that reward systems are two pronged:  they specify both WHAT you reward and HOW you reward it.  Someone also made the intelligent point that the how should match the what, in the sense that the rewards ought to actually facilitate doing the thing being rewarded.

I’ve been thinking about that, particularly in the context of d20 games, since that what I’ve been playing recently.  Experience is awarded for defeating monsters or completing an adventure, which allows a character to reach the next level.  This in turn improves their stats, skills, feats, and attack bonusThere are specific rules for awarding combat experience, but no other type, which tends to reward combat instead of talking.  If talking were rewarded instead of combat, it could mean that negotiating makes me better at fighting via increased attack bonus.  Since everything increases at once, the rewards make me better at many more things than I actually did!  There’s a mismatch between what is rewarded and how it’s rewarded.  This makes me wonder, what would d20 look like if advancement of the various stats was decoupled from the others?  A “point buy” approach would still allow mismatched advancement, but experience tied to individual stats would be unwieldy.  I haven’t come up with any solution to that yet.

It also occurs to me that there are a few different kinds of behaviors that may be worth rewarding.  There are things the players do outside the game that add to the game, like writing background and so forth.  There are the things that the characters do in game, like use skills and overcome challenges.  Then there are the things that the players do in the game that are really meta-actions, like initiate a scene, involve other characters, and so forth.  I’m not sure if it’s necessarily true that for each the reward should help you perform the same action in the future.  For character actions, this seems to be the case.  The others are not as clear to me.  I’ll think on it.