Archive for the 'advice' Category


character development: rebirth and reinvention

Rebirth – Where a character confronts certain core assumptions about their nature and place in the world with the intent of changing.  To overcome one’s flaws, they must be shown in a way that directly challenges the character and which overcomes their inertia to remain as they are.

This option is not taken lightly, rebirth is traumatic, may have deep psychological or spiritual implications from which the character may grow.  Confronting deepest fears or flaws is optional yet the option to confront these is often taken, whether as part of a point of no return or projection scenario.
It’s also rarely advisable to force rebirth on characters in interactive entertainment without prior foreshadowing and demonstrating why the rebirth is necessary.  The process is best served either following a dark night of the soul or a gradual yet visible apotheosis.  If you can manage both at the same time, this is powerful stuff.

Reinvention – The alternative is to either recreate a character to make them new or update an existing character to maintain their relevance, allow for new cultural sensibilities or to emphasise a particular focus – letting a character develop in ways that the original could not predict or that was unsuited to.

Where rebirth acknowledges what has gone before, reinvention prefers to focus on the renewed aspect of the character and minimise or even revise prior knowledge in favour of the new image.  As a result it grants more authorial control over the character and their environment.

This process can kill a character deader than disco if mishandled and is best done with an eye to what makes the character emotionally resonate with it’s audience.  When renovating the character, adding emotional hooks or minor details that catch attention may provide jumpstarts for strong stories.

These two processes permanently change the status quo of a character – a big step!  Done well, it transforms a character into something much greater.  Done badly and it means either applying retroactive continuity which damages their credibility or worse, forcing the character into yet another reinvention.


big damn dungeons

This post at Grognardia about the lack of mega-dungeons and the follow-up at Greyhawk Grognard and it got me thinking.  My introduction to the mega-dungeon proper (I didn’t know it then) was Descent Into The Depths/Vault of the Drow (D1-3) with it’s epic scale (miles of caverns) and sections you were encouraged to develop.  Big damn dungeons are one of the iconic elements (to borrow a phrase) of Dungeons & Dragons.

Undermountain, Night Below, Moria, Dragon Mountain, Rappan Athuk and The World’s Biggest Dungeon are examples with a more contemporary example being the dungeon built by Monte Cook at Dungeon-A-Day.  Demand for such exists yet few hit iconic status without re-invention or turning into self-contained mills to grind out levels and gain loot with no customisation or replayability.

Ironically, the failure of most mega-dungeons to engage may be down to granularity and scale, effectively not thinking big enough. There is a danger you create modules for the mega-dungeon setting rather than larger campaign elements.  The difference between module and campaign sourcebook is notable and it’s this divide that has caused many mega-dungeons to be definitive works, preventing individual innovation.

Mega-dungeons have been described as campaign dungeons.  Why not then treat them that way?  Provide a core sourcebook or boxed set for the megadungeon with an overview map with complete sections and gaps to allow growth. The basic model of expanding detail works but the trick here is to stop short of providing the ultimate resource.  Tabletop’s big strength is imagination and the unexpected so why not play to it?

The second part of this plan is to think larger scale when publishing to fill the gaps.  Instead of modules, using self-contained sourcebooks with example encounters and two or more adventures.  The rest is assorted new things, vignettes and elements to maximise replayability (e.g. tables, selections of elements) enabling emergent play and customisation while being effectively self-contained. 

The trick here in both cases is to inspire development by the DM, sections with three lines of text at most (something Gary Gygax excelled at) to spark imaginations (e.g. “Here lies Dragotha, the Undead Dragon.”) and deliberately leave sections for the games master to make their own.  Making your mega-dungeon different from your friend’s means you get more enjoyment out of it.

Flexibility in creating content is a desirable skill for any games master.  Providing rough flight plans for areas of the mega-dungeon and enough meat on the bones so running this game as is can be good, but running it your way is better.  Emergent play also allows the sourcebook to inspire further adventures within that common framework and gives players a taste of something they don’t get every day – the unknown.


campaign branding: genre conventions

Genre conventions are a framework of elements that set a scene and provide an audience tools to help them imagine it and the wider story.  These conventions give a creator options and choices that make their story or game distinctive and help convey messages (thematic or otherwise) to the audience.

Aesthetic – The specific attributes of a story that helps define it.  The time, place, genre and basic premises of what is expected from the story.  Aesthetic conventions include oppressive regimes, armoured knights or isolated rustic colonies. These need to be outlined up front or the audience will be confused.

Ideological – A specific vision or sensory experience (a ‘look’ or ‘feel’) – if aesthetic is the substance, this is the style.  Here is the grit in your crime drama or the slick chrome in your science-fiction.  As over half of all communication is non-verbal, this is something ignored at your peril.

Rhetorical – Persuasive arguments employed by a story on it’s audience.  The social implications of those arguments may compel (compare The Handmaid’s Tale with Gattaca with Children of Men) an audience and contemporary issues can shape or alter the sensitivity of an audience to a story’s rhetoric.

Ritual – Behavioural actions associated with a particular genre, the traits characters display to comply with the above.  Action heroes are courageous, tough and rebel against authority.  Noir detectives are cynical romantics with internal monologues.  All of these (and more) are explored in one place

Aligning genre conventions can maximise story impact and speed setup.  The trick is to do it so the genre conventions are revealed in an original or innovative way.  Due to high exposure (how many TV shows and movies have you seen this year?) these are used and re-used to a point some call formulaic. 

Judicious blending or contrasting conventions can invigorate formulaic elements.  Robocop is cyberpunk but uses elements of the western and crime drama.  From Dusk Till Dawn is another example of blended genres.
Yet even blending can hit saturation.  The key then is to go back to the classics and work from there.

To give a story zip, it’s worth focussing on character and emotions powered by situations.  In order to provide characters, emotions and situations context, genre conventions provide a backdrop for the drama and help to wrangle thematic elements.


play vs. story

“My take on the ludology/narratology debate has always been that it’s a clever and completely false dichotomy.  If what you’re into is talking about interactive entertainment, then it’s endlessly fertile ground. If what you’re into is making interactive entertainment, it’s literarily meaningless.”
        — Mark Barrett, game designer

So which is more important – game or story?  Every instance of what is referred to in the quote as interactive entertainment has narrative elements – in some cases flapping like vestigial limbs while others have huge plot museums for you to wander through – all to provide an answer to why you are here.

The quote above raises an interesting point.  Is plot essential to play?  Does it matter if you’re having fun grinding a level or three that you skip the exposition? Nobody stopped a game of Tetris because it broke their immersion – yet if you need that information to complete the game, you’d best have it available!

The priority that an audience places on mechanical interaction or completing challenges against that of story that helps you suspend your disbelief is more likely driven by a designer than by audience. Yet different players demand different things from games and a cohesive, entertaining story is often used as one of them.

This presents a paradox for tabletop roleplaying games.  I’ve seen games fall flat when players reject the set up.  If an event is unexpected and inconsistent, even if it follows the rule of cool, some players hit disbelief and utter “That’s just silly” or engage their right to choose and engage in mayhem upon the local village.

Equally, an alternate reality game stands or falls on exposition.  If you lack a strong lead then something new and shiny will distract your audience promising hidden stories, special benefits or unique merch.  While the interaction and challenges may be brilliant, without exposition you’re going nowhere fast.
Interactive entertainments in the vein of RPGs or ARGs require a greater investment of attention over time.  Using a story linked to the game as a reward is common to video games, RPGs and ARGs.  Some games implement this reward exclusively while others use it in tandem with formal play using rule mechanisms.
Ultimately it comes down to the design objectives of the game.  If you’re looking at formalised play then story is a secondary concern.  If you’re more interested in free-form play then story is suited as a framework and reward to participation. Determining what the players want then becomes important.

morality play

This month’s RPG Carnival deals with morality – both in game and audience. The title comes from a style of medieval and Tudor-era theatre where personified attributes (e.g. justice, charity) urge characters (and the audience) to live a good life.  Born of mystery plays where religion was distributed by the stage, a morality play is a Renaissance take on allegory.

What role does morality have in escapist entertainment?  Escapism permits a get away from the dolorous or banal nature of the real world.  Can entertainment vicariously give a moral holiday to an audience expected only to witness events?  When entertainment is interactive, is simulation of evil merely self-indulgent or actually evil? Where does escapism become transgression?

Moral holiday is a term coined by philosopher William James to describe a temporary respite from moral concerns using belief in an absolute reality – trusting the world to look after itself a while – until the individual is ready to return to striving for a better place.  Protagonists from Richard III to Dexter delight audiences while performing atrocities.  Of course, protests are made due to the immoral nature of it all.

Escapism is compatible with both morality and banality.  Banal escapism is certainly possible by the medium of ‘reality TV’ so moral escapism can and has been since Aesop.  I could tell you about my paladin but the heroic stance is often a default state.  This has led to examples of actual play subverting the social contract of a game due to dissatisfaction with formulaic adventure or a missing incentive to be heroic.

Allen Varney wrote an excellent article, Do The Right Thing where he notes many games use resource-based survival and the scarcity of games considering morality beyond good vs. evil or moral spectra with ethical bells & whistles.  Attempts to justify morality by mechanics foundered on relativism, consider Vampire with it’s paths of enlightenment and numerous hierarchies of sins.

Yet laws without authority or sanction are inherently weak and one size doesn’t fit all even with superheroes.  Moving from zero-sum into business ethics a moment, is a moral element an essential component in games design if only to provide context?  Is morality a genre convention or part of a social contract between players and to a larger extent, society?  Like it or not, the audience is part of a greater thing.

Violation of taboo is a provocative element and may be used for satire or shock value to reinforce established morals.  Using entertainment to justify evil acts exposes your ethical or moral integrity to criticism.  Players can ignore a moral framework and play as they like – rebellion against conformity moves to territory where things may bite not only in-game but also in reality.  How good is a game if it’s censored and censured?

The tipping point comes when the moral holiday becomes the moral retirement plan or when a consensual line is crossed.  Visiting a carnival and living in one are different things and require at least a shift in viewpoint.  Where there are those threatened by an alternative point of view, they need either to be shown the fears are baseless or where appropriate, reminded of the basic right to freedom of speech.


character development: the point of no return

Otherwise called that ‘Oh sh-‘ moment where a character realises they must ‘do something’ about a situation or confront something that exposes them to a flaw or vulnerability.  Recognising the point of no return as a point for activity means the following:

Clear Options – Doing nothing must lead to obvious negative consequences.  Retreat must be worse.  If they didn’t bury their heads in the sand, signposts for different options need to be apparent. At least one option represents a theme at odds with the character and their goals or one where a weakness, flaw or gap comes into play.  From such seeds conflict will arise, whether it’s external battles or inner struggle.

Boons – The character may have help in dealing with the conflict – in the form of people (Merlin), places (Rivendell) or even objects (e.g. Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber). They can provide advice, safe refuge or even the tools to achieve success, not only at the point of no return but beyond…

Boons may be related to the theme of the story or adventure, or reflect the attributes of the hero or those attributes sought by the hero (e.g Excalibur is a symbol of kingship and martial power). They help to complete the character if they have suffered in the events leading up to the point of no return (Frodo is healed at Rivendell before leaving with the Fellowship).

Banes – Building a better enemy for a character has been discussed in my post on antagonists. They represent the opposing side of the conflict, in some cases a dark mirror of or an embodiment of the flaws or limitations of that character. The enemy may have boons of their own – or perhaps be the guardian of the boons for the character to obtain.

Banes can also be foils rather than foes, some foils can be turned into allies (e.g. Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca) while others may remain an aggravation and lesson as what failure can lead to. While foils can threaten the character, this is usually not potentially lethal to the character, that perogative belongs to the villain.

Threshold – This is a locus, a place or state of mind that must be achieved in order to begin dealing with the issues determined by the theme or leading to this situation.  The threshold can be a literal doorway or cliff top, or it can be a psychological crisis or journey.  What happens next is up to the character…


campaign branding: supplies in demand

It’s interesting to note many games and stories have inherent assumptions about their rules borrowed from real life(TM) yet authors and game masters fail to consider logical extensions.  An example in D&D 1st to 3.x edition is the prevalence of powdered silver as a cleric spell component.  It implies relative ease of access to silver by any priesthood.  Not a problem in a game with a common silver standard.

There are places where this is not applicable.  Settings like Dark Sun where sorceror-kings and history have depleted resources.  Or Ravenloft where werebeasts aren’t only prevalent but rule certain realms.  Another example from D&D is diamond dust.  Diamonds aren’t plentiful without a source.  There are other examples but you get the idea.  Wool without sheep?  That may be a problem…

Rather than despair at the inconsistency, it’s worth thinking of this as a way to give the game or story a bit of distinction.  An explanation why is needed as you will be asked by those inconvenienced by – or who wish to take advantage of – the situation.  To have arrived here, a series of events have taken place.  All you need to do is to establish what they were.

Those with improv genius and opportunity will riff something pithy and insightful into the human condition and the apparent inconsistency. The rest of us have to prepare something – which requires thought and a little bit of judicious problem solving. I recommend borrowing a couple of methods to facilitate this as you’ll need to identify the root causes and possibly turn it into a scene or even a whole story.

The first is taught by three-year old children the world over.  Ask “Why?” in response to an answer to your question.  Repeat five times. Each “Why?” sparks an answer which leads to more information.  More than five and whoever you’re asking may try to strangle you.  Asphyxiation is bad and it reduces my readership. Resist the temptation. It’s been tested by children so you don’t have to!

The second is Dr. Rotwang’s adventure funnel which offers a goal, sets obstacles in it’s way and provides details to give additional flavour.  Use the inconsistency as the goal (in the first example, the presence of powdered silver despite the setting saying otherwise), set obstacles (the whys it’s not working that way in the setting) and use elements of the answers to your five whys as details.

Doing this is no excuse for bad research or sloppy plotting.  It does smooth rough edges off and provides opportunities for campaign branding.  Done well, your audience will buy into the story when they find that the apparent inconsistency has a logical and internally consistent explanation for why things are the way they are.