Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Map Quest 1

I find maps an important part of writing. I need to understand the space in which the story is taking place as the locale is an important part of the decision-making process for the characters, shaping their plans and stopping them accidentally doing something truly stupid.

A map is useful to the players for the same reason and can lead the story in new and interesting directions as geography may suggest a new solution to a problem. Imagine trying to defend a village - the enemy is marching from the east. We could defend the walls, however studying the map shows there are only so many routes one can march a body of troops. If they are not carrying all their supplies, instead living from the land a little that removes more options. If we collapse trees in these areas, we'll be pretty sure they will march through this pass in which there is another village which owes us a favour. How about we head there, take over the inn and fill the soldiers' ale with something poisonous? This kind of thinking can only happen if the players have enough information about the world to plan ahead but it can lead to the story taking a life of its own; one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of being a GM.

I'm not alone in my love of maps. Tolkien was a fan of letting a map provide a framework to his story as were C.S. Lewis and many others. Fortunately, I also enjoy drawing them. I've always sketched in pen or pencil and I find the act of drawing an area a good way to think about what might happen within it. Over the last few years I have been looking for a comfortable way to draw maps electronically so I can save, undo and print multiple copies easily. It is the reason I originally bought an iPad, and why recently I've been interested in the Pencil by FiftyThree. The Pencil is a lovely piece of kit, with a great feel and the closest I've come so far to using a pen and a sketchbook. I'm going to be using it to draw the maps I need for my Legend of the Five Rings game and I'm hoping that as I learn the tool I will get some good results.

In the meantime, behold the first map.

Rokugan map

If you know your Rokugan geography it's in that big empty area in the north west Crane lands, east of Zakyo Toshi. The details are particular to my own campaign world although the scale matches at least some of the Rokugan maps I've seen.

I've used the original version of this map to calculate travel times, which has been important for helping the party arrive at Winter Court before the snow made travel impossible, and has helped me map out plausible troop and supply movements so enemies and allies do not suddenly have access to unexplained resources. Many of these things will probably not be noticed, but they help make the world seem credible and solid and they also help me keep track of who is doing what and why, which is important when it comes to improvisation.

Friday, 7 November 2014

The big dice roll

Anyone who has played a tabletop roleplaying game has experienced that thrilling moment when excitement and utter terror crash together. That moment when all the planning and hard work comes together and there is a reckoning. When empires rise and kingdoms fall. I mean, of course, the time when you have to pick up the dice and roll them.

Dice are a simple device which can be modelled with probability (we all know the reality that dice are evil and vindictive, taking favourites and delighting in crushing dreams but that is a different post) and the results predicted with statistics. A skilled combat character (skilled by the numbers, ignoring the skill of the player) tends to do consistently well in combat situations, however if your experiences are anything like mine an equally skilled social or artistic character often a wildly varying rate of success - miraculous achievements and dismal failures appearing with alarming regularity. So why is there this difference? There are two main effects at play and brace yourself because there is going to be a little maths involved.

Firstly, there is the volume of dice rolls. The distribution of results from a die will tend towards the statistical prediction as the number of independent rolls increase. That is to say, if you roll a fair die once or twice you could get anything. If you roll it dozens of times you're likely to get a roughly equal number of each result. The more times you roll, the more even your results will be. To put it in more useful gaming terms, rolling lots of dice makes the outcome far more predictable.

In all RPG systems I have played, pretty much every action in a combat encounter requires some dice to be rolled. An entire social encounter (and especially a performance) is often modelled as a single roll. Couple this with combat usually taking the lion's share of the game time and you have vastly more combat dice being thrown than non-combat dice. The combat character gets the whole spectrum of results, with less riding on each individual roll so bad rolls can be countered with good. Eventually the character's skill pushes the average towards success. The non-combat character is at the mercy of the dice as they are usually stuck with their single roll, good or bad with the effect being amplified by the inherent variance in the system being played, which is to say that the outcome is far more based on luck.

Secondly, there are the mechanics available to player to give themselves an edge. In combat a character can fight defensively, move to higher ground, power attack, change stance and so on and used correctly all of these options change the rolls to sway things in their favour. The options available to the non-combat character are typically few and far between making it harder to take advantage of changing circumstances. This also makes the non-combat character less engaging as there are fewer choices to be made when using their primary skill.

Both of these are a reflection of combat mechanics being more fully developed than social mechanics. If the game is combat-focused that doesn't matter too much, however my current game is focused on social encounters so I need a way to redress this balance.

A simple change is to have variable results depending on the dice. Missed the target number by five? Your performance was good but had mistakes. This works nicely when the non-combat encounters are not too important but unless the GM is very clear up front what will happen at different thresholds it is a bit vague and on its own it doesn't address inconsistency in the character's results or create more engaging mechanics to give the players more control.

I also want to avoided simply rolling more dice per minute. Although there is a lot to be learned from comparing the two, I think social encounters deserve to be treated differently to combat encounters. They are slower, with a longer burn-in time and more scope for laying foundations before the final, all-important action takes place. That means awarding bonuses for preparation - both in avoiding failure and enhancing success.

My first major concern is to find a way to avoid catastrophic failure from an experienced performer. A singer has a skill level which represents their ability to start singing on demand. If they are to perform at an important event they are unlikely to just wing it, instead practising to reduce the risk of failure. I'm modelling this by awarding static dice modifiers to players who spend time practising - essentially the end performance is easier because of the preparation. To get the desired effect, you really need to set the difficulty of the attempted performance at the beginning of the practice period as the aim is to make it more likely the character will succeed when the dice are rolled, not just move the same variance to higher numbers. A similar preparation for a social encounter might be to research the target's interests and pet peeves to avoid a faux pas.

I also want the players to be able to take actions to enhance their success - the equivalent of the combat modifiers. Pre-actions in a social situation would mean smaller activities which lead towards the intended goal. Trying to persuade a merchant to buy his products exclusively from your factory would be a hard check, but with the correct preparation it can become much easier. A character might do the merchant a series of favours first to create a strong relationship with them then conduct the negotiation in a relaxing environment whilst plying them with drink to slightly impair their judgement. An alternative approach would be to threaten the merchant then pay a contact to harass them over a period of days so they are distracted and sleep-deprived when the time comes to talk.

Both approaches have the character increasing their chance of success by taking minor actions in preparation which will give a numerical bonus in the final roll. The player is making decisions throughout as they are choosing their preparations and acting them out. The preparation also gives the opportunity to assess their opponent and the changing political battlefield. They might decide at any point that the final negotiation is a bad idea and try to pull out.

Allowing numerical advantages from preparation will not make many non-combat encounters significantly easier to overcome but I'm not going to increase the difficulty to compensate just yet. Game systems do not usually encourage preparation beyond perhaps setting a quick ambush so this is quite a shift in thinking and that will take time to embed but it should produce more engaging non-combat encounters driven by the players as well as giving them more control over the outcomes.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Gaps in the timeline

When starting a new game, how often to play is an important consideration. Personally, I'm a fan of playing weekly as developments are kept fresh in people's minds. A week is long enough for a player (or players) to talk and plan, but not long enough for an enthusiastic to grow too frustrated because they can't move things forward. Weekly games help players remember details such as the names of characters and locations and if the occasional session is missed the schedule is not pushed back by months. Playing weekly allows a "continuous TV serial" style of game. Sessions don't all have to be crammed with plot because there is are more coming along soon.

A slower schedule would have different strengths and weaknesses. A monthly game may breed more excitement for an individual session and can avoid cancellations as people prioritise playing higher. Playing monthly encourages more of a "cinema" style game with infrequent instalments, each of more importance to the whole. Each session needs to advance the plot while also giving all the players the space to play their characters. On the other hand, each session will likely be longer than a weekly game and has more time for the GM to prepare. Rather than being a continuous plot, a game with long gaps between sessions is likely to be written episodically. Everyone forgets details, so each session will need to be relatively self-contained so there is less to forget.

There isn't a "right" way of running a game and the decision will likely be taken on an entirely practical level based on everyone's availability. The danger comes when not taking the frequency into account when writing the game, or when circumstances force a change.

In between the excitement and adventure of beautifully crafted gaming sessions exists the tedium of real life and that has a habit of intruding on and disrupting the game. My group are all post-university (and hence in-work) age and lead busy lives. Consequently, our weekly game skips roughly one in five sessions. This isn't a problem when it is one a month, but it is all too common for us to go through a period of one session, two weeks off, another session, three weeks off. This is a sad, inevitable fact of getting older but results in the weekly game - written to be continuous - at times running monthly. The ongoing challenge is how to bridge those periods without re-writing into an episodic game (not that there is anything inherently wrong with an episodic game, but that would change the character of what I'm writing at the moment).

Big gaps mean forgotten details. Obvious things first - a recap helps everyone get back on track. Starting each session with a "previously on" sets the scene, highlights important details and neatly doubles as a signpost for the beginning of the session. Keeping good notes during a session is essential for this - there will always be times when you come to write the recap and you have no idea what a particular player did last time, regardless of how important it was.

Another good way to help people's memories along is with an NPC cheatsheet. For each plot arc I write my own sheet to help me remember names, motivations, personalities, physical traits and political allegiances. Next time I do this I'm going to produce a modified one for each of the players. This will help not only with remembering everyone - and because we're playing Legend of the Five Rings and we are not Japanese speakers, many of the names are complicated - but also be a starting point for their political manoeuvring as it will aid them visualise the courtly battlefield (as noted in Feedback a few weeks ago). A simple and obvious idea and one that I'm kicking myself for not doing earlier.

It's important to remember that characters have memories as well as players. A detail from two months ago in real time might be something experienced an hour ago for the character. Various mechanics exist for character memory (most of them similar to character deduction, or GM hints) however before reaching for the dice it is worth asking "what happens if they fail this?" If the objective is to bridge a perfectly reasonable gap in player memory a poor dice roll is going to lead to an unreasonable blocker to the story and frustration so maybe skip over the check entirely.

I don't want to completely rewrite the plot to something more episodic, but I am looking at ways to restructure what is going on to help keep things moving. A sequence played weekly can afford to be slow and have some false starts, but if those same sessions are less frequent it is very easy for that sequence to feel like it is taking forever - months in real time even though it's only two sessions of game time. I want to have plots which can be fast-forwarded when needed and have escape routes which I can use to temporarily "episodify" (not a word) the game when real life gets in the way.

Finally, I'm re-evaluating the experiences of the sessions themselves. Memorable NPCs stick in the memory (obviously) so what makes a memorable NPC? An outlandish character can certainly be memorable, but doesn't fit the character of the game so I'm working on enhancing the descriptions and interesting traits. The same is true for the locations. These are things that need to improve anyway and with a focus to that improvement I'm looking forward to seeing what happens.