Monday, February 29, 2016

Soap operas, the Sequel

In my last post, I’m not sure that I accomplished explaining why some of the sagas we know and love are what I consider to be soap operas. So here’s a second attempt using some examples. (You do not need to be a comic book fan to get the point!)

Eons ago, Peter Parker met Gwen Stacey at Empire State University. They became a couple. Then you find out that her father is the police captain. Of all the people killed in New York during a Spidey/Doc Ock fight - it’s Captain Stacey. It just so happens that Peter’s best friend and his best friend’s father are both the Green Goblin, and both seem sexually intoxicated with Gwen. But it doesn’t stop there. The Lizard is Peter’s science teacher (or Doc Ock is in the movies). The Jackal was Gwen’s teacher, and boy did he get pissed when she died (either because of Spiderman or the Green Goblin, depending on your point of view). Then apparently the Green Goblin and Gwen had children together years ago, but no one knew, but because of the Green Goblin, they age fast enough to get involved in the story lines.

Many of us might be willing to have a willful suspension of disbelief and accept that a radioactive spider can bite a kid and turn him into a superhero, but can we really believe that of all the people in New York City, this one kid has so many personal relationships with people who undergo horrible tragedies that lead them to become super villains? That’s why it’s a soap opera. Every single character that seems to enter into Spiderman’s field of vision seems to get some tragic back story and then gain super powers. Just like on the old time soap operas when you learn that the character you thought was from England turns out to be the main character’s long lost daughter and they just figure it in time to avoid having her marry her brother.

But why do they do this? This is an easy form of storytelling. Instead of introducing new characters every week (like most modern police procedurals do), they keep using the same characters you’ve learned about and giving them new story arcs. That made sense in those days of television, because they wanted to keep using the same actors and not have to bring in new folks all the time. It made it easier for the fans, because they could get to know these characters, and even if there were plot twists, they felt more attached to the characters.

But does it work in your campaigns? I think it does. Can your party/players remember every quest giver they ever had? Probably not. Every major enemy? Probably not. By reusing the same quest givers and even some of the enemies, you make it easier for the players to remember who is who and even develop some relationships - even if those relationships are born of hatred.

Soap Operas and Why your fantasy city should be one

Maybe you watch or have watched soap operas and maybe you never have. Maybe you think you don’t watch soap operas, but I think you do. Like what? Well, duh, like Game of Thrones. But also like Law & Order (some of the time), or Gotham, or professional wrestling, or Spiderman. What’s the common theme here - Lots of stories about lots of characters and they all intertwine in a way that isn’t exactly realistic. Ignoring GoT for a second, what isn’t realistic about them? Well, typically that this many stories happen to this few people and they are all still intertwined. How is GoT different? Well, there really might be enough characters there to make it sort of make sense.

Don’t tune out just yet, here’s the point: The same way that tons of stuff keeps happening to the same family, two families, group of friends or colleagues, or whatever is exactly how it can work for your fantasy city! Look, none of us have enough time to come up with as many characters as GRRM. If we did, we’d be six years late with the latest portion of the campaign too. So you need to appear to have a vast cast of characters, but keep things reasonably well contained. This helps you as the GM and it helps your players, since they typically only interact with these characters once a week. They don’t remember every one, and they can’t flip back through the pages to look up who that guy is/was.

But how do you do it? You start small. You introduce someone who is seemingly important but not really important. Say the son of a Duke who just needs some little help. Someone stole his prize race horse and he needs adventurers to get it back for him before the big race. That’s a good mission to send adventurers on. But wait - It turns out that the Duke’s second cousin (who is also putting a horse in that race) is behind the plot. They don’t get to kill the Duke’s cousin! (Maybe don’t let them meet him if you think your players are too stupid to know not to kill noblemen.)

So now they know the Duke, and that he has a rival. A couple more adventures and maybe they are able to publicly discredit the rival, removing him from the picture. Then there’s a war, and the Duke wants the party as men at arms with him. But the Duke’s cousin the King gets himself killed in the conflict, so he’s now the new King. And the party rises to the top. Meanwhile, they’ve met the Duke’s family, his extended family, the rivals, the King (now dead) and a ton of other nobles while they were all off at war together. Once their guy is king, they start meeting the ladies of the court and other hangers on.

What’s the soap opera part? Well, the family has internal conflicts and external conflicts. The adventurers take care of some of these, but others cannot be handled with a sword or a spell, so they either get good at the court manipulations or they let other people handle those. The cast of characters has grown to at least two dozen members of the royal family, many are allies; many are enemies. There can be bastards who want revenge, scorned lovers, people who think they are scorned lovers, forgotten twins, mad men who want to take over the world with freezing rays ((OK, don’t use that soap opera plot line, it’s too weird even for fantasy). You started small with the Duke and his rival cousin. You probably expanded when they met the Duke’s father and some of the others in his immediate family. There was the rival family line, and there had to be more than one of them. I never watched Dallas, but I’m getting a Ewing feel here, where the Duke is Bobby and the cousin is JR. and that is the point!

Need more? Well the Duke is married to or engaged to another rival’s ex-girlfriend. Let’s make it better: The Duke was betrothed to a noble woman, but she died in a horse riding accident. So another noble family broke an engagement between their daughter and some Count (being less than a Duke), and she married the Duke. So now the Count is a rival as well, as is the brother of the dead girl. But now there’s a girl walking around town with amnesia and she might be the dead noble girl or she might be some insidious plot to trick the Duke. Once he’s King, all manner of former family lines are going to come out of the woodwork swearing that they have a better claim to the throne than the ex-Duke does. Maybe there is even a civil war in the making. But if you can avoid letting the rivals simply be killed (because royal families don’t go around killing off other royals), you have a festering pot of drama where the same characters keep stirring the drama around the pot. OK, I’ll stop with that crazy analogy!!

Click here for a second try at explaining what I was going after.

So we used an example of royalty in this posting. Want a quick royal family? Check out Royalty!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The hiring of assassins and other “adventurers”

Anyone who has read our Forge of Imagination - Spark of an Idea knows that we think introducing missions is important. The old standards of you see a strange guy in a bar and he offers you a mission or even the Adventurers’ Guild has a bulletin board outside with job postings just don’t cut it at a certain level of experience. I think most of us GMs explain the price the quest giver is offering based on the difficulty of the mission and that this is what helps steer which party of adventurers would be willing to go. But how do the quest givers know?

I watch a lot of true crime stuff and my lack of faith in the criminal community is well placed. The number of “assassins” who botch jobs is far larger than those who execute them flawlessly. I think it is incredibly important for a quest giver to consider this when they are handing out missions. Let’s ignore the folks who are so desperate they will take anyone, and focus more on the quest givers who have something to lose.

There are all sorts of missions, but a lot of times they involve killing someone (or some group) or retrieving something of value. Especially with the retrieving something of value, the quest giver needs to be able to trust that these adventurers are not only capable of getting it, but of returning it carefully. The downside is huge. If they fail to get it, they just warned whoever has it that they need to increase security (well, maybe not increase, since it seems to have worked). If they do get it, let’s hope they don’t “break it”, but more importantly, what’s to stop them from trying to blackmail the quest giver for more money? Why should the quest giver trust them?

The answer is typically because they have contacts in common, but if you haven’t fleshed out your campaign enough to consider things like that, you might be at a bit of a loss. Yes, “word gets around”, but most adventurers (like assassins) do their killing when no one is looking, so it’s tough to suggest that word gets around all that well. Think about it. Assuming you are a reasonably honest and law abiding person, would you have any way of contacting a shady group to do something for you? I wouldn’t. I’m OK with not having a lot of friends who are criminals, but I have to accept that I cannot (at this point in my life) hire someone to whack somebody for me.

We’re not suggesting that you change every single part of your game, but at least consider things from the quest giver’s side before you hand out missions to a group of barbarians and devil worshipers. They have to feel confident that the party can accomplish the mission without making things worse, and that’s not an easy thing to assess. It does help the role-playing though. What is the quest giver hoping they will do? Do they look the part? Can they be intimidating when they need to be? look dangerous enough that he would believe them to be tough? Look honest enough that he sends them to rescue his virginal daughter from the bandits? Not every quest giver is thinking clearly, and that may factor in, but sending a group of heavily armed thugs to go kill some bandits might just be a stupid plan that ends up arming the bandits. Then again, maybe your gaming group is the second team, the ones who have to go in now that the bandits are better armed and warned that someone is coming. I like those! It reminds them that adventurers can die too!

Last point - How does the quest giver assess if they are OK? by giving them a smaller less important quest first. Depending on how well they do (or don’t), he can then determine if he trusts them on the real mission. That assumes he has the time for such a thing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Fantasy Violence and why it makes good sense

Cops shows on TV are exciting. That’s one of the main reasons we watch them. We know that every police officer (in the USA, not talking about the UK here) carries or has access to a gun. (OK, not “every”, but nearly every, don’t argue the finer points!) So in our willful suspension of disbelief, we accept that cops are shooting it out with the bad guys. But (using data from 2011) less than 12% of police officers will ever fire their gun at a person in their entire careers. Estimates are 300-400 fired weapons amongst 750K police annually. 300-400 fired weapons? That’s like two seasons on Blue Bloods.

But that’s the point. I love the show Blue Bloods, but I think Danny fires his weapon in every single show. So at the very least, the amount of bullets used per season cannot be considered “realistic”. Hey I am ALL for realism! Read any one of the blog posts here and you’ll see that. But I support the increased level of violence, to a point.

The RPGs we play are violent. People attack each other, and people get killed. Most of us like it that way. The heightened violence adds to the excitement, and we don’t play these games to be bored. So I do support having nearly every mission including some violence.

But I also remember playing that really old game when I was a kid. Open door, kill monster, open next door. OK, that was just stupid. Honestly, too many online RPGs are like that too. Go kill 10 green orcs, then kill 20 blue orcs. The kill numbers you amass are beyond belief. It’s really not that I oppose the violence! I oppose the lack of imagination shown by the game designers. Is that really all they can come up with?

My point is this: Sure, the amount of violence that occurs in any RPG campaign is so far over the top that it cannot be considered realistic, but it certainly adds to the fun or action or tension or drama or whatever you want that typically is a major factor in why the people are there to play. Personally, I think pretty much every mission should have a fight in it, but not always in the most predictable place. Do missions need more than one fight? Some do, but in my opinion, the majority do not. Just remember that the bad guys know how to open doors too, and suddenly your multiple fights become one big fight with reinforcements.