Friday, May 31, 2013

The Influence of Jack Vance

As almost everyone reading this already knows, Jack Vance passed away on the 26th of May. Given how little of his work I've actually read (The Green Pearl and most of The Dying Earth), it may be presumptuous to maintain - as I do - that his work has greatly affected mine. On the other hand, if this isn't your first time reading this blog, you know that I write about magic a lot, and I write about D&D a lot. You can hardly be unaware that D&D's approach to magic is called Vancian because Gygax lifted so very shamelessly from the system that The Dying Earth and other works described in such detail.

Like I said, though, I haven't yet read all that much of his work, though now that he's gone I am reminded that I should really rectify that. I can mainly point to his influence on others: D&D as mentioned, and also a Story Hour known as Sepulchrave's Tales of Wyre on the EN World forums. The things I really want to highlight are the style of magic itself, the use of language, and the culture of wizards in the world.

The Style of Magic

A good while back, I wrote about three different literary approaches to magic. I direct your attention back to this post because Jack Vance described a style of magic in which wizards memorized a single casting of each of a tiny number of spells; I seem to recall that holding four spells in memory at the same time is regarded as an extraordinary feat. Each of these, when cast, is wiped from the wizard's memory and must be memorized from scratch once more, which is why wizards have spellbooks. For Vance, a wizard can fully comprehend magic in defined, discrete ways. Magic is strange but those who wield it can penetrate that mystery. If The Dying Earth had not become the name of a subgenre all its own, it would not be any great stretch to call it weird fiction, and much of its weirdness comes from the magic and the wizards themselves.

I don't know if he was the first to treat spells as finite conceptual objects, but it's hard to overstate how useful that approach is in game design. This has allowed games to offer a large number of individually-simple choices; in this way video games can allow magic to be something more than a reskin of a gun without getting bogged down in a high-granularity decision-making process. To put that another way: the excellent prismatic spray has pre-defined parameters and outcomes, so in a single declaration (including targeting information) the player communicates to the DM or the video game most of the necessary information. The other way of doing this, more in keeping with non-Vancian fiction, might declare something like, "I'm channeling magic in the form of light. I want to divide the light into each of its visible component colors. I think that those colors should deal some damage (how much?), have a chance to petrify a target, have a chance to drive the target mad, have a chance to banish a target, and so on." Now, there's an argument to be made that the latter player is more creative and invested in game, assuming the DM agrees that the setting's magic works in such a way that any of that makes sense... but video games can't negotiate with players. Then you have video games with spell creation systems, so that the player can make all of the complex choices up-front, but such systems are notoriously prone to abuse.

The weird and wonderful names of Vance's spells certainly influenced ritualism in Dust to Dust; I didn't (that is, haven't yet) fully pursue the tongue-twisting, lightless-depths-of-the-OED style found in Vance's spells, but then the tone of Dust to Dust is one of dread and power in contrast to Vance's worlds of weirdness and charm. A wizard in the Dying Earth or DtD might possess almost any combination of spells, researched in ancient tomes or stolen from a rival wizard - but that's all part of the culture of wizards, and I'm getting ahead of myself. Spells in Dust to Dust are not memorized, per se, but wizards absolutely must have the ritual open in front of them in order to cast it, and once cast a spell is certainly erased from the caster's focus. Same overall effect, different explanation. One major difference between Vance's style and DtD's is that Vance imagines a fixed number of spells in existence, a point from which esoteric knowledge can only be lost from the earth; in DtD spell research is equally likely to mean "new invention" or "rediscovery of lost things."

The things that Vance's spells actually accomplish are deeply weird as well. They're the sorts of spells that don't concern themselves with practicality or whether something was the easiest way, mystically speaking, to accomplish that goal - which is fine in a novel but becomes a little more awkward over the course of a campaign, especially when we're talking about players with an end goal in mind. Even so, I like the sense that there must be some reason that the arcane is as arcane as it is, but instead of making the final effect of each spell bizarre and complicated, I stored the complex stuff in the spell-preparation step. Where other fantasy writers and magic systems go for loosely-defined systems that produce relatively straightforward effects (blasts of fire, shields of force, whatever), Vance goes for highly-defined systems that produce weird effects.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

LARP Design: Story Arc Transitions

The Eclipse campaign has successfully concluded its first story arc. Their six-year mission: to boldly go where no LARP of its lineage has gone before. This is far from the end for the campaign, however, as they have announced that the second story arc begins in September. Arc structure, especially in the beginnings and endings, is a very difficult (yet scarcely discussed) area of LARP design. The narrative and mechanical implications of an arc transition are largely the same as any other event, but intensified by the implicit emphasis of being the end of something.

Story Arcs

At this point, I've been involved with four campaigns that have ended one story arc and started up a second: Shattered Isles, Wildlands South, King's Gate, and now Eclipse. These games planned around a limited-arc structure from the beginning of the campaign; five years is the "traditional" length, though that includes very large or very small values of five. To the best of my knowledge, these arcs are based on learning from Babylon 5 that a closed arc following a narrative structure of exposition, rising action, and climax is stronger than a soap opera where conflict must never be resolved or released. (Falling action and denouement do not really need to take place on-camera - wrapping this up in text is pretty much fine.)

At the same time, a Plot committee is always throwing everything it has into every event, so how do they top everything that has come before to make the climax into something legendary? Following immediately on that question, if they hold nothing back, how do they leave anything left to explore in a new arc? Continuity and finality are in tension in almost every consideration.

On a narrative level, the climactic event is the most important event in the campaign: the payoff for everything that has come before, the answer to the questions that have driven the campaign up to that point. So, you know, no pressure. It's difficult enough to wrap everything up at or near the same event in a way that feels at all natural, so much of the final season leading up to that event is wrap-up for plotlines other than the main campaign plot. (I'll reiterate here that there are five kinds of plot, of which Main Plot is one.)

This gets thorny when some plotlines result in the necessary retirement of a character one or more events before the finale: those players must choose between NPCing the final few events or starting a new character so close to the end that there are no real on-ramps to plotline involvement. If the conclusion of the plotline is such that you are, say, trapped in a crystal battling an ancient evil for the rest of eternity, there's not really a good way to get even a convincing cameo at the final event. Otherwise, Plot usually decides to delay forced-retirement plotlines until the final event, or to leave an opening for the retired or dead PC to play the final event in some altered form. In some cases this looks a lot like playing fast and loose with the rules of permanent death, but most players understand that it's a nod to continuity and a thank-you note to players who remained loyal fans throughout the campaign to date.

To make the event really stand out, most games go for some kind of non-standard field battle as their big action, and as the linked post might lead you to believe, I can only laud this choice. Eclipse did so in spades: their four-day arc closer featured four major field battles.
  1. Simple point-defense.
  2. Player-directed terrain deformation. Players set up walls that permitted ranged attacks but not melee attacks. This was the closest to classic tower-defense that I have ever seen in a LARP.
  3. Completely insane mobility and four-point-defense battle. They went nuts on introducing new rules to support fighting in a low-G environment, while also making highly cinematic use of "flying" NPCs.
  4. Module-during-field-battle, which is classic stuff; in addition to this, the field battle was governed by the NPCs trying to break objects we were defending. There were also occasional transfers between the module and the field battle. 
This demonstrates that the climactic event is also treated as being the most important on a mechanical level. The characters are at the peak of their powers; in many games they are further amplified by the payoff of one plotline or another, allowing them to tackle epic threats that would normally destroy them. If you're going to hand out character power for free (free here relates solely to XP - work and engagement as currency are valid but totally beside the point), the end of an arc is the best time for it, but be careful: it's easy to get into player-favoritism territory here. This is a whole huge topic of its own, but let's keep it brief for now and just say that it's generally good to include a reason that the increased power goes away at the end of the arc, either because the character retires from play or because the power is withdrawn by the gods or whoever.

Character Continuity and Retirement

This is probably the single most controversial point in this whole post. At least within long-campaign boffer LARPs, it may be flat-out one of the most controversial topics in the whole of game design. If there's going to be a second arc, who are the characters we're going to care about? Do the survivors of the first arc continue on, does everyone have to start a new character, or is there a middle ground? Roll this up with the issues around permanent death, while you're at it. Death is a big part of heroic sacrifice, and heroism is what we're here to talk about in high-adventure boffer LARPing. (If this doesn't apply to your LARP, that's cool, but this post isn't for you.)

I could write not merely a blog entry but a whole blog about perspectives on this. I'll try to keep it concise: death needs to be a meaningful threat, and there is no death as satisfying in narrative as the one that magnifies the feeling of glory. If a new character has to start play at some XP total lower than the highest-XP player in the game (this is... currently universal, but a game could hypothetically be run the other way), then the game needs the most experienced characters to shuffle off at some point to make way for new.

There are any number of different ways to handle this, from shepherding all characters toward retirement at a certain XP total to letting the player's wishes, the random chance of permanent death, and the inherent end of a campaign handle things organically. The games I've been involved with have all gone for the latter, with considerable variation in frequency of permanent deaths. I have internalized the reasoning behind this design choice, at this point; other choices are probably valid, but the way this works out is the way I think things should be. (It's cool if you disagree with me, is what I'm saying.) The games I've been involved in have solved the problem of characters that never retire and grow to colossal power by ending, and by intermittently increasing the starting XP total.

In games that don't take a strong hand in pushing high-powered characters out the door, the last season-or-so of the campaign involves an increased degree of backstage communication and negotiation between players and Plot to sort things out: perhaps the player seeks a glorious death and/or retirement, or Plot feels that a particular character's end really ought to be nigh. A changeup in the Plot committee roster is also an expected feature of campaign transitions, and a leading cause of character retirement. If you're lucky, Plot committee churn has been minimal up to that point, but even the best teams have people suffering from burnout and needing to move on to other projects. Introducing new creative voices to Plot is good for finding energy and motivation, though the new folks have to work overtime to catch up with the setting lore - it's all too easy for continuity bugs to creep in when the committee changes.

In Eclipse's case, there's a lot still up in the air as to which characters will stick around for the second arc. It's been heavily discussed within the community already, but Plot (and emergent story) threw a number of curveballs along with the smokin' fastball that was disguised as an eight-foot-tall robot and a demon queen, so plans can change without warning. Players have any number of different reasons for wanting to continue or retire a character.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Campaigns I'd Like To Run: The Demon Dreams

I've been wanting to participate in the Age of Ravens Blog Carnival for "Campaigns I'd Like To Run," but up to now I've had a hard time coming up with anything. The thing is, for the most part I'm currently running the campaigns I would want to run, between Dust to Dust, Aurikesh, and (every once in a very long while) Over the Edge. This covers high medieval fantasy LARPing (with some dark elements, but not "dark fantasy" as such), late Renaissance fantasy tabletop (some weird elements, but not "weird fantasy" as such), and modern esoteric thriller tabletop. Also, my Mage chronicle is still pretty recent, so that's another modern esoteric fantasy. Of my general preferences, what am I even leaving out?
Aside: Plenty of things, but I don't have specific ideas for most of them. Ahem.
Well, I haven't run anything that went all-in on weird fantasy lately, or ever. The closest I've come to that is the MK ULTRA one-shot I ran as a Christmas special one year. There's also this one game I've mentioned, on and off, wanting to run for about five years now: Noumenon. For pure weirdness, there aren't many games that outrank Noumenon, to my knowledge, though Itras by gives it a run for its money. This crystallized for me today thanks to a phrase written by someone who hated the Georgia Renaissance Festival: Enchanted Demon Festival. What can I say? Inspiration comes from the strangest places. All by itself, Enchanted Demon Festival is an amazing and awesome idea for a Halloween party or one-shot LARP!

I want to combine all of these weird sources of ideas with my substantial supply of Dreamblade minis. I've wanted the minis to do more than gather dust on a shelf for a long time, but as you see from that second link there are some major tonal rifts between Dreamblade and the games I'm running. For what it's worth, I'm also about to have a whole shitload of Reaper Bones minis, and I'd like to make sure I can use those.

The Demon Dreams

System: Heavily hacked 4e - the classes and races are barely relevant, but the structure and dynamics of powers are central. The powers available to each player change pretty often; it's important for the math to stay easy to handle on the fly.

Concept: The players are dreams given life, sapience, and something like stability, thanks to a seismic shift in the landscape of dreams. Now that they have an independent reality, they begin to explore the dream-world around them, where they clash with others like themselves. Once they have gained a certain familiarity with how the world works, a city begins to form within the dream-world, a neutral ground where dreams can meet and trade without (as much) fear of violence. An NPC ruler rises to power among the dreams of the city, and the whole place becomes increasingly like the city of Sigil in the Planescape setting. Still later in the game, creatures of something other than dream enter the dreamlands - fey lords, cosmic entities, angels, and gods.

All PC dreams spring out of the same Sleeper, and the players cooperate to protect and strengthen him or her (typically represented in the form of a shared holding like a castle or tower). Over the course of the campaign, the players learn the bizarre secrets of the dreamlands, including ways to transform themselves into the forms taken by other dreams, changing their outward forms and capabilities so that they can tackle a wide variety of challenges. Ideally, figuring out the system would be interesting in itself. Much of the game revolves around the same kind of surrealist exploration as Noumenon. There should be tons of room of new and weird revelations, such as the nature of the players' Sleeper and the Sleepers that enemy dreams come from.

Friday, May 17, 2013

How Many Classes DO We Need?

We've had the druid, paladin, and ranger in the last couple of playtest packets. These three classes have a greater burden of justifying their own existence than many other classes in the game. They need to differentiate themselves from the classes of which they were offshoots, way back in 2e - otherwise, they should probably be folded back into that parent class or treated as an in-world role that results from some admixture of one or two classes, a Background, and a Specialty.

For example, here are a few ways to build a functional druid, ranger, and paladin, all from the latest packet, with the addition of some kind of multiclassing rules, but without the new classes themselves.
  • Druid: Cleric, Stormcaller deity, Guide or Priest background, Ambusher or Survivor specialty.
    • Slightly more adventurous: Do a little class-dipping into Rogue for the Scout scheme and access to skill tricks, or Barbarian to represent a totemic-badass kind of deal.
  • Ranger: Fighter, Rogue, or Fighter + Rogue multiclass. The great thing about the Rogue multiclass is that this Ranger does get to be the party's traps guy. Barbarian + Rogue is... questionable, but possibly doable. 
    • Bounty Hunter, Commoner (Trapper), and Guide are all kind of amazing Background options. 
    • Pick a fighting style from the Specialties list - 3.x wants you to take Sharpshooter or Two-Weapon Fighter, while 1e wants you to take Durable.
  • Paladin: This one pretty much explains itself. Fighter with the Mystical Healer specialty, or Cleric with the Defender specialty (or really any melee fighting specialty), or a multiclass of the two.
    • Noble or Knight are the classic options for Backgrounds, though the paladin from my college game was a bounty hunter by trade. (Poor guy... I was not remotely prepared to support his character concept as much as I should have done.) Soldier is also a great choice.
    • Since the Warden and the Blackguard (side note: can we please discuss changing that name to Shadowguard?) are a thing now, the Warden works well with the Guide Background, and the Blackguard works just fine with the Soldier or Knight Backgrounds.
  • Bonus: This is obvious by now, but you could also cover the Avenger, one of 4e's most stylish classes (it's like an assassin... with a code of honor that I guess you could call some kind of creed) with a Rogue/Mystical Healer, Cleric/Ambusher, or Cleric/Skirmisher. It makes me miss the Acolyte, an early Theme that granted a smite-like damage bonus. Spy, Guild Thief, and Bounty Hunter are all great choices for backgrounds here.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Experience and Engagement

Earlier today, I read the latest post over at Room 209 Gaming, and it got me thinking. You should absolutely go read the post, but if that's a lot to ask, I'll sum up the parts that grabbed me: experience points are the way you get players to do the thing you want them to do. This is not the least bit new, but this time I got serious about trying to rephrase that into a broader statement. Said effort brought me around to a few thoughts that I want to explore.

I absolutely agree that experience points are intended to be a primary carrot that motivates the players to do whatever the game or the GM "wants" them to spend their energy doing. The past few decades of game design have seen that develop from "amass treasure, and fight monsters on the way" to "just fight some monsters, and maybe get quest XP rewards also" to solely quest XP, rewards for things that uphold or alter your character's nature, rewards for things your character learned about the world, and so on. What I wanted was a summary that inclusively expressed what the designer and GM both want from that model of XP.

Experience points are the carrot for engaging with the game's content.

The different ways and reasons for awarding XP are attempts to do one of two things: either direct the engagement toward channels that interest the person making the decision, or simply quantify that engagement. Directing the engagement is what Ray Watters talks about in the Room 209 post, and most commentary on XP, dwells on: if you reward something, you must want lots of it. I was a little perplexed by Ray's argument that giving out XP for more things creates an environment that is stressful for the players. I would generally think of giving out XP for more things as the GM recognizing more actions as contributing to the game. I guess one could think of XP as getting graded on a test and aiming for an A; that line of thinking makes a lot more sense in published modules, where the module likely hands out additional XP for engaging with optional parts of the module's content, so any content you miss is like points off.

Quantifying the engagement is a goal that people don't talk about as much. The way I run Aurikesh, I need to award numerical XP, because players have multiple characters and don't play every session, so they advance unevenly and I want to track that in a way that is fair to everyone. What basis should I use for awarding XP, given that party members range from first to third level and many sessions involve no combat? As it happens, I use an arbitrary combination of combat XP and story-advancement XP; this sometimes sends mixed messages to the players, because there's not a detailed reason that they get 20 XP more or less than last time. The good thing about almost any kind of system is the resultant transparency and the feedback that XP totals represent.
As a side note, none of this applies in a LARP, except that player XP nominations as used in CI/Ro3 theoretically allow players to reward one another for game-improving behavior. Stands-in-Fire's discussions of other ways we could be handling advancement have their own merits, of course.
For a lot of games - for what D&D presents as its default, basic game - basing all XP on resolving encounters is a pretty logical approach. Given 3-6 moderately- to highly-distractable players and only so many hours to play in, focus is at a premium. To get them to pay attention and minimize distracting table-talk, the game gives them more XP for getting through more encounters. Given how long it takes to resolve a situation through combat versus how long it usually takes to talk your way out of a fight, the "optimal" solution might be to bullshit your way though as many encounters as possible, Miles Vorkosigan-style.

Still, I don't recommend hanging all XP on the number of encounters resolved for more mature, engaged groups. It requires tallying encounters, defining their boundaries and victory conditions, and so on, in a way that becomes intrusive once everyone is comfortable with their characters and goals. Below the cut: the next realization.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Setting Idea for Divine Magic

So D&D has always had this thing where wizards have to research or seize their spells from others, but clerics automatically get access to all spells of each new spell level. (4e is the exception, since it had a totally different approach to spell levels.) Everything else about the two classes' approach to preparing and casting spells is basically the same, though. I can't help but find this disappointing - there's a huge opportunity to get clerics interested in adventures to gain new spells, but any such additions have to come from outside the published material.

I do kind of get why it's done that way, from a nominally simulationist perspective. D&D's default assumption is that wizards are solitary and competitive, while clerics operate within the structure of organized religion and have obligations (these are great for adventure hooks, so I can't complain) and a support network. That infrastructure has had centuries to codify and duplicate all of the prayer-books, and then provide and teach those prayers to novices. Further, arcane magic is supposed to be arcane, esoteric, and difficult (hence the whole "memorization" thing, because D&D copied every part of Vance's wizards), while divine magic is a prayer, either in the common tongue or in some cognate of Church Latin. Given those thematic assumptions, there isn't a lot of room to make divine magic difficult or hidden. Since questing and research for spells are things I want in the game, this is a post about an alternate theme and explanation for divine magic.

To get to that point, let's talk about the word channeling. Many, many systems of magic describe the spellcaster channeling and shaping energy from elsewhere, including the D&D Next cleric's Channel Divinity powers. The word suggests two things: the image of a river of power (with tributaries, stream beds, and so on), and immediacy. On the latter note, when magic is described as channeled, I expect the spellcaster to make very few decisions beforehand. The caster decides what to cast and the relative power with which to cast it (if that is variable - metamagic is what I have in mind here) at the moment she exercises that power in the world. The decisions are less strategic and more tactical.

The image of the river suggests that the power is more straightforward in its function than subtle, wherever possible. If power is the water, the spellcaster must be the earth of the river itself; something about the spellcaster is the limit to how much power can move from the headwaters (the godhead, in the cleric's presumptive case) to the ocean-that-is-the-world. What happens when the volume of water is greater than the riverbed? A flood, reshaping of the riverbed, and erosion: uncontrolled alteration of the world outside the caster's body and soul. Many channeling systems include overchanneling mechanics, drawing more power than the caster can manage or tolerate, with some kind of detrimental effect.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

LARP Design: Combat Encounters

Today I thought I might say a few words about the design of combat encounters in LARPs, and some rules elements to treat with greatest care during rules design so that creating enjoyable encounters in years to come is as easy as possible. Chalk this up to a lot of lessons hard-learned over the years. I'm mostly be discussing the games I've personally played and run, so the terminology and specific examples come from CI/Ro3 rules or NERO Wildlands South. If you're coming from other games and need clarification on these terms, the Comment field is your friend.

In boffer LARPs, it's common to see PCs of widely divergent power levels. The health of the game relies on both challenging the long-term players and making sure the low-powered characters feel that they can contribute, especially in the climactic scenes where everyone should feel fully engaged. Some new players enjoy the fear and drama of huddling behind the powerhouse PCs, and the powerhouse PCs almost certainly enjoy showboating, but let's not kid ourselves, that's a non-solution and a recipe for stagnation.

Not all powerhouse characters are equally combat-focused, either: dedicated scholars, entertainers, and so on often have limited combat capabilities. Such characters are mostly in the same boat as low-powered characters, except that they have consciously chosen to focus their efforts on other aspects of gameplay. (Let's set aside for a moment the complicated issue of boffer LARPing for people with physical limitations - an entirely valid topic, but outside the scope of this post.) Assuming that they didn't make these choices in an uninformed way, it's tempting to say that they should just derive their enjoyment from other parts of the game; for some of them this will be enough. The much superior approach, however, is to look for ways to engage those players in creative and exciting ways, such as giving them an unusual way to interact with the environment of the fight.

The "absolute" case, if you will, of challenging all players equally is an encounter with no rules interaction whatsoever, or one in which PCs cannot use any of their abilities. This might appeal to the new players, and might even be worth trying as a one-off situation, but undermining the usefulness of the abilities players spent all that time earning is mostly a very bad idea. After all, the old-guard players who bought up non-combat abilities still enjoy the full benefit of their powers, since they apply outside the span of that encounter. The general rule here is that if your plan involves invalidating a player's ability, think really, really hard about why you're doing that, make absolutely sure it's the right thing to do in that situation, and try to devise a few alternatives. Your first alternative should always be to make some other power or power set more-than-normally effective instead of shutting the other one down.

The Exception to the Above

Once you really, seriously know what you're doing, in game design as in all pursuits, you can start breaking the rules. The problem is that a lot of people - sometimes including me, and I'm awesome - think they have a situation where an exception to the above is called for, but they haven't thought it through well enough. The right time for an exception is the puzzle encounter, where you want to stop the players from resolving it as a head-on battle. The most common pitfall is failure to sufficiently telegraph what you're doing, both the invalidation of the ability and the alternate path that you want the players to pursue. The frustration of "my abilities don't work" and the tension of "we're getting beaten up" do not combine into "we're having a good time," in my experience. Creating good puzzle encounters deserves a post of its own - maybe I'll get around to writing that one someday.