Story Telling Problems in a Traditional RPG

I thought I’d break away from video games for a little bit and talk some more about RPGs, but the traditional kinds. This is something that’s been on my mind a fair bit lately, as my local gaming group recently finished the last campaign I ran for them, and I’m working on a new one, as well as a new RPG system to run it on.

But the system mechanics aren’t what I’m interested in today. As someone who runs more games than he plays in, I thought I’d talk about some storytelling issues and problems I’ve encountered.

A quick primer to the uninitiated; in a traditional role playing is a refereed affair, where one person creates an adventure for the players, and interprets the results of anything uncertain, usually through dice. They also control any all characters beside the player characters. This referee is usually called a Game Master, Dungeon Master or Storyteller, though there are a number of other terms for it.

Now, there’s a lot of articles you can find about the problems with power-players, railroading, and similar issues. So let’s talk about the more unusual stuff.

Meta-gaming Premonition: A lot of games come pre-packed with a specific premise — while Dungeons & Dragons has a general premise; a fantasy genre, mythical monsters and heavy combat. Other games like Werewolf: The Apocalypse (and the rest of the World of Darkness games) have a more specific premise, in this case, werewolves. Having a specific premise usually means that the game can better cater to the needs of that premise, meaning more details and better mechanics, which is good. But there’s a single distinct problem — they player’s know a lot of the detail of the game before it happens.

Now, if you’re playing Werewolf, a lot of people will start a game where all the players are established werewolves. But to me, part of the fun of a game with super-human or meta-human abilities is the discovery of those abilities; if you jump right in, you miss all of that. But even if you start with characters who aren’t werewolves (or vampires, or mages, or changelings, or what have you) it’s pretty well implied that this dramatic event that will only occur to a small number of people will just so happen to occur to everyone in the focus of your game.

This type of exterior understanding of future events (meta-gaming) can influence the player’s decisions, and ruin what could otherwise be a pretty awesome plot twist. Ultimately, if you want to avoid this, you need to hack the system and add in something your players don’t expect — either by adding in new abilities and conforming them to the flavor of the game, or by awarding existing abilities with new flavor. The trick is to avoid unbalancing the game, and it helps to use a system that doesn’t have a specific aim to begin with. (WoD Mortals and Aberrant are good, as are things like Gurps.)

This brings us to a second issue, however…

The Consent of the Players: One problem with doing things the players don’t expect is violating their consent. In most of these games, there are mechanical systems in place which are used to judge certain infractions on a player’s want for their characters; combat systems are used to determine when they’re injured or when they can injure their enemies, skill systems to determine when they succeed or fail. But more unusual conditions aren’t usually covered; long-term injuries, sickness, transformations and similar things.

Additionally, you need to bare in mind situations and scenarios that might offend; this sort of thing comes with knowing your players, but some people often forget about it. It helps to inquire if there are any touchy subjects with your players and make sure they’re comfortable with the kind of material you intend to use in the role playing material.

You’ll want to be specifically careful about doing unusual things to the player-characters though, particularly when they’re entirely outside the control of the characters.

The Nature of Meta-game Knowledge: Another common problem I encounter is the players relying heavily on game mechanics and thinking less about the  reality of the game’s setting; where the player’s outside knowledge trumps the characters inside knowledge. Normally it’s just a lack of thinking that produces this — like someone fighting to their death in a trivial engagement. Realistically, people don’t stay in a dangerous situation after they’ve been notably injured and they certainly won’t wait until they’re at death’s door to retreat, but this sort of thing occurs frequently in games.

Additionally, characters are usually abnormally self-aware. They don’t often have inaccurate self assessments of their abilities, they have appropriate self images; they aren’t deluded at all. But realistically, we don’t see ourselves that accurately. We don’t know if we have serious wounds — just if they look serious or not. We don’t know if we’re a 20% or 30% skilled person in whatever field, but we can guess by comparing our successes to our peers over time. Solving this isn’t straight forward, but it is easy — being aware of it is all you can do.

The Nature of Puzzles: The last thing I want to mention today is the idea of puzzles. Long ago, I tried to model my campaigns after the adventurous video games I played, with mediocre success. Video game adventures are often very poor models of realism in any degree, so you end up with very arbitrary feeling scenarios. Additionally, players in a role playing game get more freedom in terms of their choice of actions in any situation.

If you try to offer them a straight forward puzzle, you’ll normally get one of two responses — instant solution or total confoundment. Either the clues are obvious to the players (like if they’ve encountered something similar before) or completely obtuse. It can be tricky to design an interesting puzzle.

The secret that’s worked for me, however is — design puzzles without answers. If there are no intended solutions, then the players will have no easy route out (no quick solution) — but since you don’t have an intended solution, you’ll be far more open to whatever the players opt to try. Of course, this doesn’t mean just anything should work, but if it sounds plausible you can always let them try it.

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2 Responses to “Story Telling Problems in a Traditional RPG”

  1. D. I. Harris Says:

    In terms of story-telling in RPGs, I’ve moved to the set-piece scenario, where I think up a bunch of related events, and come up with 3-4 ways to connect them with the same NPCs. There are good ways to get to the next set piece, in which case the players get advantages in the next set-piece scenario, and, if the players are stumped, they get disadvantages.

    Essentially, I think about what the setting of the campaign is, and then think of several very fun and exciting scenarios. Then I write jot-notes of the main characters, their habits and whatnot, and a few lines of dialogue that indicate their interpersonal manner (these are a fantastic help, even if you never actually end up saying them). I usually have one ideal way of getting from set-piece to set-piece in mind, which gives an advantage to the next set-piece, while also allowing an infinite amount of creativity in getting to the next set-piece if the players don’t use my ideal way.

    To take a crude and off-the-top-of-my-head example, suppose the characters are relic hunters a-la Indiana Jones. They hear of a great treasure in a secret temple. If they probe their contact for information properly, or figure out that he’s hiding something, he confesses that the treasure is guarded by a mummy who is weak against fire.

    I would then have a whole bunch of jot notes for possible characters they could meet.

    Eventually, they reach the temple, and manage to get to the mummy, which is an epic and hard-fought battle. I would have the mummy’s stats and a whole bunch of special, surprising things it can do.

    The next set-piece is a chase of robbers. If the players defeat the mummy, they hear the robbers come into the temple, and can play cat-and-mouse to catch them; if the players flee the mummy, the robbers steal the treasure while the PCs are occupied and then the cat-and-mouse game has a time limit because the robber with the treasure is getting away!

    The next set-piece would be an attack on a dirigible. If the PCs manage to defeat the robbers, they learn that they only have half the treasure, and an assault is planned to gain the other half that night! If the robbers get away, inquiry about the treasure the robbers took leads to a former treasure-hunter, who is holding a party in his dirigible that night–exactly where the NPCs are attacking! (though the players won’t know this unless they defeated the robbers). If they manage to fight off the assault, they get the second piece of the treasure. If they probe for information, they will receive a warning that the big boss of the robbers is going to come in a week to take care of them personally (so the PCs get to prepare defences). If they lose or flee in the dirigible, the robbers manage to acquire the treasure, and the PCs have to confront the big boss in his hideout, so he has his defences.

    Of course, I usually have more options than the loss/fail binary, but I’m just giving you a general idea here.

    The point is that, by focussing on creating your characters, their personalities, and their stats, and then creating a couple of exciting scenarios where they will go up against the players, you’ll be able to both be creative and adapt to the player’s ideas while still keeping your own ideas by simply rearranging the way in which the set-piece occurs.

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