Posts Tagged ‘improv

12
Oct
11

Maintaining Descriptive Mystique

Some in the OSR blogosphere have suggested that Google+ will soon replace the role of blogs as a venue for conversation in our circle. I haven’t been doing a lot of posting there on my own initiative, although it is fun to be drawn into discussions when people tag me in a conversation. Here is one started by Kirin Robinson, designer of the awesome Old School Hack, that uses the interview I did with Canon Puncture as the departure point for some interesting territory. Kirin wrote:

If you’re curious about some of the tenets of old-school D&D, and how they differ from modern D&D (no judgement here, though), here’s a great half-hour gaming advocates podcast with The Mule Abides’ +Tavis Allison as he goes on about the history of the game. I highly recommend it, I learned a lot listening to it.

What’s very interesting is that he’s not so much talking about D&D as outlined in the original little brown books, but about the “Mythic D&D” that existed beyond them at gaming tables in the context of the style of play being this new and exciting thing – D&D as a framework, where situational rules were made up as you went along in a sort of emergent “creating the game as you played the game” kind of way.

Thinking about +John Johnson‘s dice fudging debate, there’s something to be said here about the uniqueness of having a purposeful non-explicitness in how one runs a game. I know that that’s probably an immediate and almost painful turn-off for a lot of gamers, of course. Even me.

 

John replied:

There are a great many newer games that tie into this “making it up as we go along” idea.Fiasco may be the best well known of them. Personally I love those types of games, and they’re what I tend to gravitate towards these days. However I also enjoy having the rule set actually supporting the type of gameplay you’re trying to do.

I took him to mean that the OD&D ruleset doesn’t actually support its intended gameplay, which I think is not at all true – saying that it doesn’t enforce that gameplay is different, and I think this lack of enforcement is valuable. Re-reading it I’m not sure this is what he meant, but my reply isn’t direct enough that it makes a difference:

I think the interesting thing about OD&D is that it has a framework of very concrete bits with big lacuna everywhere else, including just about everywhere modern games assume rules are needed. You’re not at all making up the prevalence of a helm of telepathy in a treasure hoard as you go along (although you might make up your own variant on that table before play starts); it’s just what the helm does that is undefined.

That said, since that interview I’ve spent a bunch of time with some fan reformats of the OD&D rules – if you put together in one place all the things OD&D says on a topic throughout the text, it’s not nearly as non-explicit as I made it out to be. Which implies that you could take a tightly designed game and make it productively mystifying by a Burroughsian cut-up method!

Kirin replied “I’m certainly looking forward to seeing where you’re going with Adventurer Conquerer King, man. Can’t wait!”

The connection of these two thoughts made me realize that, like playing with Greyharp’s 3LBB reformat, developing ACKS has been part of a process of filling in my own blanks and de-mystifying the originally ever-puzzling OD&D text into something coherent:

Adventurer Conqueror King is kind of an OSR recapitulation of 3E; in some ways it’s very much a rationalization of the original rules. We’ve spent endless skull-sweat looking at the social organization & treasure types of B/X monsters like orcs and pirates and reverse engineering general principles about the distribution of wealth, and I’m pretty sure Cook & Tweet & Williams did the exact same thing to get to the demographics guidelines in the 3E DMG. (We just add “consistency with ancient-world history” and “avoiding the unintended consequences of 3E/4E” to the mix.)

There is still an emphasis on framework over rules, though. I was talking to some NYC storygamers and they were like “are you going to provide guidelines for adjucating the players’ clever solution for using a decanter of endless water to defeat a descending-ceiling deathtrap?” I was blown away that this was what they considered the important problem; it seemed obvious to me that you’d just rule that it worked, or ask the table what they thought the probability of success was and roll it on a d6, or do whatever else your group had evolved to deal with lacuna.

The ACKS design is all about figuring out how many apprentices it took to make that decanter of endless water, and who can afford to buy it, because when the players kill an appentice wandering monster we want it to be easy to adjucate that some baron sends his knights after you demanding to know why you delayed production on the item he promised for his liege’s niece’s wedding gift.

Kirin replied:

I was very lucky, in putting together Old School Hack I had equal measures of critique calling for more specificity and calling for maintained descriptive mystique.

By and large I like the latter. Adding more rules is easy, keeping things simple and interesting and establishing precedence for further extrapolation? Much harder.

I love the idea of descriptive mystique as something the designer of a ruleset has to work to preserve, just like the designer of a campaign setting has to make sure blank spaces get left on the world map. Thanks to Kirin and John for permission to repost their comments here!

18
May
11

Illusionism and Improvised Puzzles

A trilithion is three standing stones; a dolmen is a portal tomb. In play I called this a henge, which is wrong.

Like my previous post about illusionism, this is a reflection on the refereeing style I used for the last D&D birthday party James and I ran. To recap, the kids in my group rolled a wandering monster, which I decided to use to provide them with a map leading to the location of two magic items, the horn of the valkyries and the cloak of shadows. James and I had prepared what these items did, but not where they might be found or what was defending them.

When the griffon-riding adventurers reached the hilltop where I’d told them the map said the horn of the valkyries was located,  I used a wipe-erase board to present the players with a situation map. “At the peak, you see a pair of standing stones, with a third stone laid across the top,” I said, drawing as I went. “Surrounding that is an area that’s scorched and burnt, parts of it are still smoking. You can see some dead bodies lying on the ground in this burnt area. Over here are trees that weren’t damaged by whatever happened here.”

Given that all of this was off the top of my head, what was I thinking? Here are the principles that I was using:

  1. Make it concrete. Drawing a map bought me a little time to think, but more importantly it gave the players a specific set of elements to work with – the trilithion, the burnt area, the zone of safety – each with a graphic reminder that these are the things we’re going to be interacting with in this scene. Vagueness is the enemy because it allows for an overwhelming number of possibilities; pinning myself down to these few elements was important for the same reason that improv actors start a sketch by having the audience provide them with a name, sentence, or concept that they’re going to riff on.
  2. Focus the mystery. The players’ goal is to snag the horn of the valkyries, but when they arrive it’s nowhere to be seen. That sets up a puzzle, which is great, but it also takes away the obvious path to the goal that’s motivating their efforts. I used the standing stones, a genre icon of the mysterious and otherworldly, to quickly suggest a new motivation. Without this hook, the search for the treasure might have become diffuse and frustrating.
  3. Set the stakes. The presence of the dead bodies establishes that something here is deadly; it sends the message to the players that they need to proceed with caution. (I’ve learned not to use the term “skeletons” when playing with kids, because that sends a different message: there’s something here to fight, yay!) I think it’s a good idea to signpost dangerous traps even when they’re planned ahead of time and thus somehow existing independently of me, but since I’m making this all up as I go along, I’d feel like a jerk if I just up and decided that touching the stones zaps you dead. Showing that someone made a wrong move and suffered lethal consequences lets me introduce consequences into play with a sense of fairness.
  4. Establish the limits. As a referee, I’ve learned that putting trash on the staircase will throw players into a frenzy of trying to figure out what’s going on. This can be useful when I don’t know what’s going on, because it buys me at least fifteen minutes to think and also spurs the players to generate lots of conjectures which I can use as inspiration. However, that kind of threat analysis can be paralyzing if it spins out of control. By drawing a perimeter of untouched trees around the area, I was signaling that this much at least is safe, you can get this close and try things out without fear,  in order to forestall an ever-widening panic zone.

So even though many of the kids in this group had never played D&D before, they immediately start thinking like adventurers, eagerly grappling with the problem of how to extract the maximum loot at minimal risk to themselves. Meanwhile, I’m improvising the situation, letting my reactions to their actions and ideas define what’s going on in the world we’re all imagining together.

    • Kids: Is there any writing on the stones?
    • Me: Yes, as you fly over them you can see runes carved into the front of each stone.  This is a no-brainer – it’s impressive how many conventions of the fantasy genre are already known to nine-year-olds – but I draw a sketch of the stones and rune-writing to make it concrete.
    • Kids: Can we read it?
    • Me: I don’t know, why would your character be able to? Throwing questions back is a good reflex for an improv referee. Apart from just buying time to think, it gets the players involved; few will pass up a chance to fill in the details of how and why their character is capable of fantastic deeds.
    • Kid #1: Because I’m a magic-user!  As noted previously, we didn’t have the kids do the character generation process that, from edition to edition, has made sitting down to play D&D ever more like filling out a tax form. However, it seems the basic ideas of classes are also part of the conventions third-graders have absorbed.
    • Me: You can tell that it’s magic writing, the kind that’s used in spells, but you’re not sure what it means. This is because I’m not sure yet either, but we’re closing in on the writing being part of a magical lock or trigger.
    • Kid #2: Let’s send the hippogriff we found down there and see if it gets burnt up!
    • Kid #1: No, it’s an animal and we made friends with it, we can’t make it get hurt!  Although Kid #2 clearly has enormous natural potential as a D&D adventurer, I’m impressed by Kid #1’s convictions. Alignment is another thing we haven’t introduced, but this kind of morality is something I want to encourage and explore…
    • Me: The letters on the top stone light up with a red glow.  So now I’ve decided that the trilithion is a gateway. Only those who prove themselves morally worthy will be allowed to pass through to the Rainbow Bridge, where the Valkyries wait to give the horn to true heroes.
    • Kid #2: Oooh! OK, I want to look at the dead bodies on the ground. Can I tell what killed them?
    • Me: You see the charred bones of humans; some are surrounded by melted metal that might have been armor and swords. These are mingled with what look like the bones of lions with wings. Reincorporation – taking things that have been established before and tying them back in as the story unfolds – is a powerful improv technique for creating meaning, depth, and coherence.
    • Kid #2: Hey, this is what happened to the rider of the griffon we captured! Those guys came here with the map to find the treasure, but they did something wrong and only that griffon escaped! This is good adventurer thinking, of the less morally-questionable variety that I want to reward…
    • Me: The letters on the left stone light up!
    • Kids: All right! What if there’s an item you’re supposed to put into the stones? Someone should fly down there and check it out. Not me, though, I don’t want to get burned!
    • Me: The letters on the last stone turn dark. Now these two are glowing red, but these are a deep black. I’ve decided that the last virtue the gate is looking for is courage, and am signifying that the players are displaying its opposite.
    • Kid #3: I’ll ride my griffon between the stones and see what happens! This kid also has a great D&D career ahead of him, although he’ll roll up a lot more new characters than the guy who herds livestock ahead of him into every potentially dangerous situation.
    • Me: As you bravely descend towards the stone, the runes on the last stone change from black to red. Your griffon soars between the stone, and everyone else sees you disappear! What you see is a rainbow stretching down from the clouds. A knight rides a horse down the rainbow, and as she draws near she takes off her helmet so that her long hair blows in the wind. “You have passed the test and proven yourself worthy of the Horn of the Valkyries,” she says. “You showed Compassion when you chose not to send the griffons to their deaths. You showed Intelligence when you learned from the mistakes of those who came before you. And you showed Courage when you approached the gate despite the danger.”

One definition of illusionism says that

In order to qualify, the players must be presented with a choice or series of choices that when made seems to affect game events, while in actuality the consequences of each option are the same.

I don’t think this kind of illusion of choice is what’s going on here. At some points during the discussion, the kids talked about just flying away from this situation and seeking out the cloak of shadows instead. If they’d done so, the consequences would not have been the same; the scenario didn’t require them to get either magic item, and I would have been just as happy to see them go flying around at random capturing Pokemon and beating up wandering monsters.

However, we are in the realm of “deliberately leaving an area blank in anticipation that I’ll just fill it in with whatever my players dream up,” which some of the commenters on the previous post had problems with. Justin Alexander said:

I think there’s an important distinction to be drawn between “I’m going to change the game world to match what the players are saying” and “this bit of blank canvas hasn’t been filled in yet and Bob just said something clever”. As a player, the former would de-invest me in the game world. The latter, on the other hand, is A-OK in my book: It’s simply a fact of reality that no fictional game world can be wholly pre-defined, and saying “I definitely WON’T have the balrog by a servant of Galfeshnee because that’s what Bob said” would be just as artificial to me as saying “the balrog WILL be a servant of Galfeshnee because Bob said it”. I’m not sure where “deliberately leaving an area blank in anticipation that I’ll just fill it in with whatever my players” would fall on this scale. (For example, “I’m going to design a murder mystery, but not both figuring out who actually did the murder. I’ll just wait for my players to come up with a theory that sounds good.”) But since it would annoy me to the point that I would probably quit playing with a GM who did it, I’m going to lump it into the first category.

And Stuart concurred:

Being presented with a mystery that we wasted time trying to figure out when there was in fact no solution would definitely annoy me to the point of quitting the game. I think it’s important the players understand whether there is in fact anything to figure out looking back, or if it’s all about looking forward and collaboratively improvising something new.

I would be psyched to have Justin or Stuart playing in my game, so I want to figure out how I could keep them from getting so annoyed they would quit! Let’s first address the issues about honesty and disclosure by imagining that I was explicit about this at the start of the campaign: As you decide where to go in this sandbox, sometimes you’ll encounter pre-planned adventures I’ve placed in a location: modules prepared by others, or less often, completely written out by myself ahead of time. In this case, I’ll pretty faithfully stick to the text to decide what you find when you go there. Sometimes you’ll go places I haven’t prepped for, so I’ll use procedural generation and improv tools like wandering monsters, interpreted on the fly, to decide what you find. And sometimes, to give meaning to things that come up in play and to advance my own DM agendas, you’ll encounter the edges of stuff I’ve just made up, or for which I have some pre-existing ideas about what’s going on without having decided on all the details. I’ll do my best to conceal from you that this is what I’m doing because I want you to engage with these conspiracies, NPC machinations, events in the world, etc. in the same way you would if they were part of a pre-planned adventure, and because I want you to experience your character’s unraveling of this situation as if it were a discovery of something that existed in the world of the game even though it’s really an improvised co-creation.

For Justin and Stweart, and folks who share their feelings: Would this be the point at which you’d say “this isn’t a game I want to play,” or would you get annoyed only if the illusion kept slipping and making it apparent when the content was improvised? And do you foresee that becoming apparent because improvised stuff was annoyingly more shoddy or awkward than the stuff prepped ahead of time?

I feel like, for my style of DMing, the only way I’d include puzzles like the example above is to have them be more or less improvised. The closest approximation I can envision to the situation Stuart describes – wasting time solving a mystery that has no solution – sounds to me like what I fear would happen if I pre-scripted puzzles: wasting time trying to solve a mystery that has no solution that makes sense to the players. One great advantage of improvised mysteries is that they are guaranteed to have solutions that exist in the player’s minds, and specifically the best solution that evolves through play.

I have relatively little experience designing pre-planned adventures, and when I do they don’t tend to include mysteries and puzzles. Presumably if I did, I’d have more of a sense of how to set it up so that the players found their way to the designated solution without getting frustrated or feeling railroaded. As it is, I’m much more comfortable letting both the puzzle and its solution arise during play. The balrog random encounter referenced in the last post became an awesome moral conundrum: will the players decide to get out of a seemingly hopeless situation by sacrificing innocent henchmen to demons? Trying to set up dilemmas like that seems better suited for games with our Indie Filth tag, and even there I often feel claustrophobic when gameplay always gets re-focused on building to the next opportunity to test the characters’ beliefs.

I’m happiest when unplanned elements suggest ways to create puzzles, because I feel like that way the context is appropriate to the situation they’re placed in and the content can reference stuff that we all obviously care about and have in the forefront of our consciousnesses. The fact that these puzzles will usually start with a great lead-in, but not know the great solution ahead of time, seems to me like a small price to pay. But I dig that folks I respect may feel differently, and am eager to understand why.

30
Mar
11

GeekDad: Getting Past Rules When DMing for Kids

The great blog on raising the next generation of nerds, GeekDad, has a post of mine today with advice on “How To Introduce a Kid to D&D Before He Goes Into Surgery“. That title is appropriate enough because it evokes the circumstances I had in mind when I gave this advice, but for a role-playing-savvy audience it might more specifically be called How To Move Past the Rules As Quickly as Possible and Break Through to Improv Psychodrama.

To unpack that from back to front, the reason I felt it was appropriate to reach for psychodrama was the circumstances. Here’s a kid who’s about to undergo a life-changing, potentially lethal experience, and what he wants to do beforehand is to play D&D for the first time. I’m never going to deny the life-affirming virtues of a simple, procedural, rules-bound dungeon crawl; but it seems to me like what this 11-year-old is reaching for is a chance not only to get outside himself into a world of fantasy, but to confront some particular fears and deal with issues of life and death, risk and survival while he’s there.

D&D is for sure a good vehicle for exploring this material, but I felt that it would emerge most strongly & truly by getting outside the confines of a pre-planned adventure and into player-driven improv. There’s a description of a psychologist using play therapy in the urban fantasy novel Minions of the Moon that really stuck with me – the idea that I retained being that when you set out a bunch of action figures and just start playing within this imaginary framework, if the kids’ alter ego reaches the treasure chest they’ve been seeking and you ask “what’s inside the chest?” the answer is going to be the thing that’s really on my mind.

The reason I talk mostly about getting past the rules, but not what to do once you’re into the improv, is that I was originally writing this advice for Edward Einhorn. When the father of the 11-year-old in question approached Edward about DMing this D&D game, I was the guy he thought to ask because I’d recently interviewed Edward about his excellent theatrical adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. That conversation became a lengthy discussion about role-playing games and how they relate to & differ from other kinds of performance art, so he knew that I knew D&D. For the same reason I knew that doing improv and letting narrative emerge from the kids playing their characters was going to be second nature for him. What seemed important to get across was that getting some level of familiarity with the rules should be seen as a necessary pre-condition to gaining the kids’ trust in the imaginary framework, without letting them become an end in themselves.

Finally, let’s talk about why I think it’s important in general to move past the rules. In the comments to the Boing Boing post about my previous post about gaming for kidsshadowfirebird said “How was this D&D? It was certainly role-playing, and I heartily approve. But.”

My experience has been that there’s basically no way to teach kids the full corpus of D&D rules (of any edition) in the time and attention span you’ve got available. It’s something they have to learn for themselves, by poring endlessly over arcane tomes and hashing out the implicatios through many hours of play. What you need to do is get them to hear the music, the sound of valkryies’ horns and axes clanging on shields, so that they’ll be inspired to invest that effort. Going as light on the rules as possible at first helps get kids hooked; once they’re D&D geeks there’ll be time enough for the geeky pleasures of rules-mastery.

I’m hoping with all my being that the kid Edward is going to be running this game for will pull through the surgery just fine and have a long, healthy life ahead of him to devote to rules-mastery or whatever else brings him joy.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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