Sunday, April 26, 2009

PC Group

Hello, and welcome to another fun-filled week of the Game Dork's gaming corner! This week, I'm going to talk about the adventuring party.

You all know the scenario: "You're in a tavern. There's a mysterious stranger sitting alone in a corner." Or, perhaps, "Someone comes over to your table." And before long, this character is recruited to join a party of people he has never met before to go off on some whirlwind adventure of killing monsters and taking their treasure, with the added benefit of some extra prize at the end of the story.

I used to run stories like that. That was all my gaming group would ever do, when we started a game. We'd each write up our individual characters, and then the GM would have to scramble to find some way to get the characters together. Often, he'd fail, and the characters would realise they have no reason to work together, and the game would fall apart.

The first time we tried to do it differently was our failed experiment in actually using the pack rules from Werewolf. But later, I decided to try a more cohesive approach, and it worked very well, actually. Now I do it every time.

What I do is I sit the gaming group down before chargen and say, "Before you write up your characters, decide how your characters know each other. I don't care why you're all friends, but you're all part of some group that has been together for a while and is likely to stay together."

A few memorable ones:

  • the PCs were all actors in a performance troupe.
  • The PCs were soldiers in the same unit, still together years after their enlistment ended.
  • One PC ran a boarding house, and the others were all tenants in that house.

Once the players know how their characters are connected, they are free to write up whatever character they want. But having this pre-existing bond enabled me, as a storyteller, to skip the "You're going on a quest with these other people that you've never met before" stage and get right to the first plot hook.

As if that weren't incentive enough (and if you don't think it is, you've obviously never GMed for a typical gaming group), there's the added incentive that intra-party conflict is MUCH less likely. I once tried to GM a game of The Whispering Vault (in which the characters are spirits who form teams to seek, capture, and return rogue spirits who are plaguing the world). The very nature of this game involves groups of people working together. The first player writes up a character who he describes as a loner, as someone who prefers to work on his own.

How am I supposed to deal with that? I'm not running two games at the same time, here. You're either in the party or you're not. It's bad enough when the characters split up and you have some players sittling idly aside while the rest get to have all the fun. But to start the game that way and expect it to continue in that manner is just wrong.

I ended up starting that character by saying, "Normally, you like to work on your own, but you get the feeling that this adventure may be just a bit too big to handle by yourself." The player complained about me co-opting his character concept, but seriously, I've got a game to run here, and I don't need your maverick loose-cannon loner making it more difficult.

The advantage to the pre-existing party concept is that if you want to write up a loner character, you can. But you'll still have a connection to the other PCs, and a reason to work with them without it being out of character. Even real-life loners have SOME friends.

But that's my suggestion. Have the players define their own group before they even write up characters, so that they'll know their characters will work together (at least to an extent). It will make things so much easier in the long run.

And that's it for this week. Tune in again next week for more of the Gaming Corner! Until then, game on!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hack and Slash vs. Storytelling

For those who don't know, I haven't been able to do any gaming now for over two years. Moving to a new country can have that effect; I haven't yet been able to find anyone to game with over here. There's been talk about gaming via Skype, but that won't be for a while yet. It's kind of frustrating at times.

But it has given me plenty of time to analyse and think about gaming in more general, abstract terms. Especially since I recently acquired the second Order of the Stick prequel book, Start of Darkness. Reading that made me want to reread the entire series, which I've been doing. And as I read that story, I'm struck by the intense plotline.

For those that don't read it (and I highly recommend that you start), there's the good guys (the titular Order of the Stick), and then there are the main bad guys (the lich sorcerer Xykon and his goblin lackey Redcloak). But then there are the secondary bad guys, the Linear Guild. Then we have other key players, like the paladins of the Sapphire Guard, and the Thieves' Guild in Greysky City. Not to mention loads of bit players, like the oracle of Sunken Valley, the Cliffport City police force, and the bandits of Wooden Forest.

What I really like about OOTS is the way that the characters are dynamic, plausible, round characters with a lot of development and growth. The characters have changed over the 600+ installments of the series, and the group dynamics are always in flux. Despite being stick figures, author Rich Burlew is capable of making us feel real compassion for the characters. Even as early as strip number 56, he had fans outraged at the nearly-fatal betrayal of one of the OOTSers, and then in number 84, he had them crying with the "saddest. comic. ever."

This is particularly impressive given that when he started the comic, it was meant to be a series of unrelated strips poking fun at rules intricacies. But he introduced an overarching plotline with fully developed, rounded characters, plots, subplots, sidequests, romance, intrigue, betrayal, adventure, action, excitement... sorry. Got a little carried away there.

What intriuges me about this is that the same people who so dearly love this comic are those who very likely sit down at the gaming table for an evening of "kick in the door" style gaming. It just amazes me that the level of storycrafting that they so adore in OOTS should be so anethema to them when their own GM tries to introduce it into their games.

Just a little something I've been thinking about lately, as I devise intricate plotlines for a game that I will likely never run for a group that doesn't exist. Until next week, game on!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Resurrection

Welcome to another week of the game dork's gaming corner! Today is Easter, so I thought I'd talk about the "revolving door afterlife."

Specifically, I am thinking of games (most notably Dungeons and Dragons) in which a dead character can be brought back to life to continue adventuring. Often, this takes all the meaning out of death, since you just come right back again mere moments later and pick up as if nothing had ever happened.

I am particularly amused by a tiny detail (many people may even fail to notice it) in the book On the Origin of PCs, which is a prequel volume for the Order of the Stick. At one point, Roy is standing in a graveyard speaking to the tomb of his father. Off to the side is a plain tombstone labelled something like "Oortak the Unlucky: 1134-1152, 1152-1153, 1153-1153, 1154-1155, 1155-1155, 1155-1156" (I don't currently have the book; I've loaned it to a friend, or I'd go and find the actual inscription).

But it just proves my point: What's the point of death if you just come right back? Oops, a minor inconvenience, the cleric must use on of his spell slots (and if your group is keeping track of these things, enough gold to cover the material components). Now, on with the game!

I suspect that for a lot of people, especially the Power Gamers, it's just another form of video game. "I lost a life! I hope I get another 1-up soon!" Or, as someone in one of my gaming groups once said, "Can we save so we can reset if we screw up?"

I was in a game once in which my character died. It was totally my fault; I knew I was taking a major risk, and I rolled poorly, and so I died. I was all set to make a new character, when suddenly the GM started talking about how the character found himself in some sort of demonic underworld where some fiends were talking about how I was going to be their agent in the mortal world, and I was suddenly sent back with some nasty new flaws. I was particularly upset that my control over my character had been usurped, especially in such an unpleasant manner. The game session ended then, and we never returned to that story, else I would have had my character commit suicide.

Again, I think this is probably a result of the fact that I am a Storyteller/Method Actor, but I think that death, when it happens, should be a serious deal. I was GMing a Changeling game in which one of the characters died. I took the player aside and offered her two options: we could translate her character to Wraith, or we could write up a new character. She chose to play a wraith. She talked on occasion about finding a new body, but it never happened. For the rest of the story, she was a wraith.

But that's my theory. If a character dies, let them stay dead.

And with that, we conclude another week of gaming essays. Until next week, game on!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Realism

Welcome to another week of the Game Dork's Gaming Corner. Today, I'd like to talk about a realisation I had while rereading Order of the Stick for about the 27th time.

Many of the jokes in that comic revolve around idiosyncracies in the rules. The characters frequently make fun of the Attack of Opportunity rules in Dungeons and Dragons. They have often poked fun at experience points and the level system. These jokes are common topics of humour and/or complaint amongst gamers. People often complain that the rules system isn't realistic.

And yet it occurs to me that they're playing a game in which you take on the roles of elves, dwarves, orcs, and gnomes, encountering goblins, trolls, dragons, and umber hulks, fighting them with swords, magic spells, magic rings, and arrows.

I've mentioned this before, but I still find it quite amusing that people can get so upset over what they perceive to be flaws in the rules, or variations in the rules, or deviations from the rules... and so forth.

But it strikes me as particularly odd that people can get so hung up on realism in a game about mythological creatures casting spells at one another. Seriously, why get angry if the rules system does not accurately portray the effects of a halberd on the flesh of a living creature, when the same player will happily have his character wave his hands and chant in an ancient language that never existed in an attempt to cause a large quantity of electricity to jump from his fingertips and kill a zombie?

I realise this probably comes from the fact that I am a Storyteller/Method Actor, but can't we all calm down a little and just enjoy the story? Especially when the players who rant most vehemently about a rules flaw is also the most likely to unashamedly exploit a loophole to maximise the power of his own character.

Anyway, I think that's enough for this week. I'll see you here again next week.  Game on!