Friday, March 14, 2014

Ruminations--Narrativism, White Wolf's EXALTED, and "Buying In"

For a year (with about nine months' of hiatus) I've been running an Exalted game for Luke and DJ.  Exalted was originally White Wolf's answer to D&D, released around 2001 with much fanfare.  For those of you who don't know, White Wolf arose in the late 1980s as an answer to the "dungeon crawl" model of D&D adventure.  It touted itself, through its original game and flagship line, Vampire: The Masquerade, as an edgy, mature, and literary role-playing system in which the aim wasn't to acquire loot and level up but instead to deliberately and consciously tell a story.  In a lot of ways this was a response to the growth of railroads in modular D&D game design (cf. Grognardia's ruminations on the Hickman Revolution) like the original Dragonlance modules.

The problems with White Wolf are legion, true.  If you subscribe to Ron Edward's theories on game design and implementation, White Wolf appears to be Story Now (a.k.a. Narrativist).  A lot of this comes down to application and the Storyteller System indeed has the trappings of Narrativism on the surface.  The games have a mechanic to enforce dramatic tension absent in most other role-playing game lines--Vampire has Humanity, for example.  Dramatic tension increases as player-characters lose points in Humanity and begin to succumb to the animal urges and wanton blood lust of the Beast within them.  Unfortunately, White Wolf as a whole and the Storyteller System as an engine fail to actually elucidate how, precisely, to run a truly Narrativist chronicle.  Numerous "stories" (read: modules) and "chronicles" (read: campaigns) have been produced for many a White Wolf line, the most noteworthy being The Transylvania Chronicles.

I both love and hate The Transylvania Chronicles.  Why do I love them?  Well, coupled with Transylvania By Night, a sourcebook (more properly, a toolbox) full of people, places, and objects with which the player-characters can interact, these books craft a wonderful setting and track the events of Transylvania through the late medieval period into the modern era.  What I hate is that The Transylvania Chronicles are a complete and total railroad--a set of encounters to navigate the players through and giving them little or no actual choice or agency in the long-run (the type of game a Typhoid Mary GM would run, cf DM of the Rings and So You Want to Write a Railroad?).  They are complete and utter pawns throughout the entirety of the campaign.  Granted, one of the major themes of Vampire: The Masquerade and its Dark Ages adjunct line is the power-relations between Kindred and their Elders, Childer and their Sires, young versus old, and how the frustrated childer are always oppressed and kept carefully in check by those vampires who embraced them.  However, The Transylvania Chronicles handles these themes artlessly, bullying the players into obeying their sires even after they've become Princes of their own cities.

This is not Narrativism.  Heck, for most imaginative and intelligent players, this isn't even fun.  Indeed, Ron Edwards argues that playing these sorts of White Wolf games can actually damage your brain, causing emotional trauma that inhibits your ability to comprehend and appreciate stories.

White Wolf lacks a defined mechanic for the very social contract that needs to take place before the players even sit down to play.  As a Narrativist game (or at least, a game that claims to be Narrativist in nature), Vampire: The Masquerade, its fellow White Wolf lines, and its successors (such as Vampire: The Requiem), really require rules for establishing the game's Premise even before the characters are rolled up.  This is something I've only recently realized through playing Exalted.  The various Storyteller Guides and Storyteller chapters of the book are rife with ideas on how to incorporate themes into the story, weaving mood and premise, thematic elements, and other literary concepts into each chronicle.  This is great... but there is no such advice for the player.  Instead, all the player gets is advice on how to roleplay a convincing vampire from Clan Tremere in its attendant splatbook.

What is required is for the Storyteller System is a mechanic or section where the players and Storyteller sit down together, before the characters are even created or the first statistic is jotted down, and decide in concert, what the game's premise will be.  And by premise, I don't mean "the quest to kill the dragon" but rather some sort of situation that will 1) resonate with everyone at the gaming table as a reflection on the human condition and 2) will be resolved through 2a) the choices the characters make and 2b) the Storyteller's fair adjudication of the setting's reaction to those choices.  This not only gives the players agency as characters, it explicitly makes them the protagonists of the story and the narrative resonance of the game's subsequent themes is doubly poignant because they are going to identify with their characters more than they would with the protagonist of a book.  The problem is, do they "buy in" to this sort of social contract about the game?  It requires the players being extremely proactive in deciding some very, very major aspects on the tone, theme, and mood of the game and may even weigh heavily on some fundamental elements such as time and place.  It demands that the GM/DM/RM/ST/etc. effectively cede control of a huge amount of creative authority to the players before the game has even begun.  It also demands that the players actively keep these themes in mind when creating characters and role-playing those characters' decisions.

Take, for example, the Eberron game I mentioned in my previous post.  Let's assume that we all sat down together and together we created an idea for a game like the one I had proposed.  Now, let's assume that the players all agree to the various tropes, setting details, tone and mood, time period-appropriate behaviors and speech, and dramatic themes.  If the players, then, failed to create characters that satisfied these genre-specific elements nor evoke the necessary atmosphere or role-playing required to capture and explore these elements, then the failure of the Eberron game to get off the ground would not have been my fault (as it actually was) but 100% their fault.  In this sense, the players must "buy in" not only to the campaign's style but also to the concept of Narrativist play as a whole.

How does this translate to a game like Exalted, which I've been running for some time?

Last Winter and Spring, I ran a game for Luke and DJ in which they started out as unExalted mortals.  The game was extremely challenging and the lethal nature of Storyteller System's combat resulted in the players having a profound respect for their own mortality and an awareness of just how fragile life is.  Near the end of last year's games, they finally Exalted, imbued with the Essence of the Unconquered Sun.  As Chosen of Sol Invictus, they are closer to being divine, similar to demigods of Greek myth.  They heal faster, they can fight with insane moves like characters from a wuxia martial arts movie or an over-the-top anime, they can use magic powers to speak other languages and punch down buildings, live for about five thousand years, and they can even soak lethal damage (as opposed to just bashing, like a mortal can).

The hiatus allowed me some time to get a breather and figure out how better to run this new sort of game and deal with all the new thematic elements and dramatic tension.  The "Limit Break" mechanic now functions as a source of dramatic tension--each character's highest Virtue (Compassion, Conviction, Temperance, or Valor) is matched with a Virtue Flaw (haughty arrogance, for example, with high Valor and low Temperance and Compassion; a character with high Conviction and Valor but low Compassion might have a Flaw in which they are willing to do anything to achieve what they see as the Greater Good, even if it means being an absolute murderous genocidal monster).  This can lead to some fantastic role-playing and some incredible drama if done properly and, frankly, has worked better as an inspirational guide and personality metric than D&D's Alignment system ever was (at least, in my personal experience).  When a character acts against their highest Virtue they have to roll dice--if they fail, they can act as they wish (the Virtue fails to force the player to act in character, essentially) but if they succeed they must either act in accordance with their Virtue or they must tick off a point of Limit and spend a point of Temporary Willpower to act against their own character.  If too many points of Limit are acquired, the character has a Limit Break, during which they have a meltdown of some sort appropriate to the Virtue (they may go completely berserk and kill everything around them or they may collapse into a sobbing puddle of tears, for example).

With that in mind, let me summarize a bit of the last few sessions now that we've started the game back up.  Luke's character, Ren, is trying to make the opium trade in the city go out of business by essentially creating his own syndicate, bullying, bribing, and buying up all the small-time dealers in the slums and 1) forcing them to sell only to those of whom he approves and 2) taking a substantial cut of their profits--if they refuse to comply, they most likely wake up in a crate or box in one of the haunted and ruined sections of the city (effectively a death sentence).  Ren uses the profits he gains to build an orphanage, the youth of which he intends to raise as his own small army of spies, assassins, and Batman-style vigilantes.  The payments are made through a dropbox in a ruined building, from which an old beggar retrieves the money and drops into another dropbox for a small fee, which is then retrieved by one of the orphanage workers.

Ren gets word that a new opium merchant has moved into town.  After digging around, Ren and Dekland (DJ's character) find out that one of this secretive, anonymous merchant's distribution centers.  Ren wants to start destroying the competition and, once he has total control of all of the city's opium distribution, cut it off entirely and destroy it while setting up safeguards that the drug will be kept out of the city thereafter.  Hence, Ren wants to take this up-and-comer out.  So he and Dekland concoct a plan to infiltrate one of the distribution centers (a bathhouse for nobles) with Dekland disguised as a slave working there.

Dekland is a soldier and is used to following orders so it seems like a good idea.  However, he's not a slave-soldier but an honorable, highly respected soldier in his homeland so his demeanor comes off as "uppity" to the managers and paid staff at the bathhouse.  This creates dramatic tension.  They start putting Dekland into situations where he's tempted to fight back (his highest Virtue is Valor, which means every time he backs down from a challenge or has to run away, he has to roll against his Virtue).  Finally, they begin to openly mistreat, abuse, and beat Dekland, forcing a couple of rolls for his Valor.  Dekland snaps and begins to beat the everliving crap out of these guys, forcing Ren to come in and help him.

In this way, the system works well--dramatic tension is heightened through a situation in which, in D&D, wouldn't have nearly as much dramatic tension because there is no such associated mechanic enforcing players to deal with the various side-effects of their character concept.  By statting out Virtues and their attendant heroic flaws, methods for dilemmas are introduced that can be mechanically resolved but also give the players the necessity to make meaningful choices because of those mechanics.  DJ could have spent a point of Temporary Willpower and ticked off a point of Limit (bringing him closer to a Break) or he could cut loose, drop all pretense of disguise and infiltration, and just wreck house.  DJ weighed the various consequences and was happy to let Dekland give in to his nature.  Skulls were cracked with big, meaty fists.

As the story progressed, Dekland and Ren made their way through a series of tunnels that night beneath the city and burnt down six out of seven different bathhouses--all containing hidden opium dens.  This made waves.  The merchant, furious that half of his distribution centers were destroyed (he also owned a number of bodegas in the city but the bathhouses were the most profitable), as well as his hub, set his two henchmen after Ren and Dekland.  The henchmen called on connections and contacts, greased a few palms, and ran across one of Ren's slum dealers.  The two henchmen began tracking them all down and killing them.  Then, they tortured and killed Ren's homeless drop-off man (who managed to warn Ren that he was being followed before he was captured, so Ren could tell his orphanage workers to lay low and not make any more pick-ups lest they be next).

So, because of Ren and Dekland's actions, an innocent man died and a number of other not-so-innocent drug dealers died.  Ren's highest Virtue being Compassion, he was pretty upset that his actions led to the death of the old homeless guy.

We can see a number of themes developing from this but the big premise that comes to the fore is that actions have consequences, good deeds often come with a high price, and power and responsibility go hand-in-hand.  I never planned for these themes to happen--they just emerged.

The thing is, I've failed at running a Narrativist game.  This was more Simulationist.  If it was Narrativist, DJ, Luke, and I would have sat down together and hammered out those themes as the central theses of our story.  It would have been a deliberate, not an accidental, exploration of those themes.  I had not initiated these gaming sessions with the intention of having Ren's entire network slaughtered in response to his actions.  I had no idea that it would happen.  I simply rolled for the various stages of the henchmen's investigations and decided what they were most likely to do given the results of their rolls and their particular motivations and personalities.

Running a Narrativist game is something I've never done and am not sure how to do effectively while still preserving a realistic set of consequences.  I think, instead of considering what would be realistic, I would have to react to player choices with the guideline "what would make a good story given our game's overarching premise?" instead of "what would realistically occur?"  Right now, we're just Ouija Boarding, essentially acting as though Simulationist play will yield Narrativist play "without any specific attention on anyone's part to do so."  Currently, I'm running Dekland's quest for his previous incarnation's tomb--something he requested as a story arc.  While this is a step in a Narrativist direction, I'm still in control of where it is, what is there, who is there, what he'll encounter, etc. while he only controls when he goes there, with whom he goes, and (to a degree) how he gets there.

I did warn DJ and Luke that, being Exalted, they're going to be much more like Hercules, Achilles, and Odysseus.  There's going to be a lot of death and tragedy around them.  Hercules killed his entire family.  Achilles lost his best friend/lover (depending on your interpretation) and died after defeating the only man who had a hope of matching him in combat, and Odysseus was away from his wife for twenty years fighting a war and sailing around (not to mention directly and indirectly getting every single member of his crew killed).  They were on board with that but they weren't explicitly involved in the creation of that concept.  It was great that they got to experience it first-hand as players but they were not fully co-authors of the tale.  They didn't craft the overarching premise of that story with me.  They didn't consciously "buy in" to the Narrativist take on the story.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Gaming and Taoism -- A Reflection on Alexis' Recent Posts at Tao of D&D

Yes, it's true, I'm not dead even though I've not posted in, like, forever, and my readership has probably moved on to greener pastures (not that I had a lot of readers with which to begin) but school has been tedious and stressful and I find it not coincidental that getting a Masters in Multicultural Education and a teaching certificate has atrophied by cognitive capacities.  It is a daily struggle to keep myself sharp in a world where indoctrination is heavy.  I feel, at times, like I'm in a reeducation camp instead of a class.

That aside, I want to talk today about some of the things Alexis has been posting on his Tao of D&D blog.  Alexis is currently writing a book on how to be a better DM and it is frighteningly obvious that this will be unlike any other "How To DM" guide ever written and that it is terrifically well-researched, well-thought-out, and a product of years and years of personal experience.  Some of the things he's discussed on his website have been, heretofore, extremely challenging to anyone who would be a DM, GM, ST, RM, etc.  And frankly, Alexis' blog is full of advice and discussion that is unlike that of any other blog I've read, with the possible exception of Justin Alexander's The Alexandrian (although Justin Alexander hasn't been digging into practical advice for a while).  Alexis' advice is often brutally honest and direct--it challenges our preconceptions about what makes a good DM and what a DM's job is.

The more he writes, the more I reflect on my own experiences and the more I want to go into those reflections.  However, I kind of feel that doing so isn't necessarily a good thing to do in his comments section.  For politeness' sake, I try to keep my comments brief even though they do tend to go on for at least three full paragraphs.  I don't really have much to add to his considerations--he's been thinking about this a lot longer than I and a lot more than I.

To begin with, I want to reference Alexis' post entitled "The Sides of Power," in which he delves into a variety of approaches to the DM-player power spectrum and digs at which philosophy of the power-relationship is most beneficial to the gaming group as a whole.  The conversation and comments made me confront my own experiences and attempt to apply Alexis' ruminations to my own experiences and observations.

First, there is, most certainly, a sort of social contract that is part of any role-playing activity/event.  Now, The Forge and Ron Edwards have devoted a lot of head-space to this idea of a social contract in gaming, which ultimately leads back to its Enlightenment-era refinement by J.-J. Rousseau (although he is by-far not the ultimate author of the concept).  We're not going to really dig into the philosophical nitty-gritty of the idea.  We're going to try to keep it simple.

So, there has to be a basic agreement between players and DM/GM/RM/ST/whathaveyou (henceforth, we're going to keep it "DM" for simplicity's sake and to dovetail with Alexis' term-usage).  And this is a key point I want to address--what are you going to run is actually where this entire contract starts.  A couple people talked in the comments section about "buying in" to a campaign concept.  If they don't "buy in" then it won't be all that fun.  But, as Alexis has discussed in his post on fun in gaming, who is the game really for?  The DM?  Alexis asserts that no, it isn't.  It is the players' fun that is important, not the DM's.

And I have come to solidly agree with Alexis.  Yeah, I can have fun being a DM.  Frankly, I had more fun DMing The Forgotten Realms than DMing White Wolf's Exalted.  The White Wolf game requires a huge amount of preparation time.  Exalted requires me to build antagonists with Charms and abilities that will challenge my players without a simple, easy metric like D&D has but players have come to love White Wolf for its distinct lack of character classes and levels, the extreme lethal nature of the system's combat even late in the game.  Even if a player is an Exalt, unless we're playing with the standard "Extra" rules (severely weakening the mortal NPCs, the likelihood of a ten-year-old with a crossbow getting a lucky shot, blowing through the character's armor and killing him in one hit is still present, just like in reality.  Sometimes avoiding combat is much wiser than engaging in it.  Even with the "Extras" rule, the possibility still exists.  In D&D, if you're playing an epic-level character (roughly the equivalent of an Exalt), that ten-year-old has absolutely zero chance of killing you, period.  Even mages have far too many hit points.

I digress.  To return to the point about playing Exalted, I am essentially running what my players want to play.  I once tried to set up an Eberron game that was going to be centered on exploring Xen'drik, that setting's equivalent of Africa (a dark, mysterious continent).  I had ideas drawn from Indiana Jones, the Alan Quartermain adventures like King Solomon's Mines, Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kaine stories, the historical British Empire in Africa (the expedition to find Dr. Livingston, for example), Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan novels, Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, and a whole host of other literary works.  Nobody "bought in" to the idea.  Nobody created the Big Game Hunter type ranger with a pith helmet and English accent.  Nobody created the intrepid explorer of the jungle.  Nobody created the daring archaeologist seeking ancient treasures amid trap-filled ruins.  I was annoyed by the players' lack of interest in the direction I wanted to take the campaign and the literary antecedents for it.  I toyed with the idea of creating pre-made characters for them to choose from but they rejected the concept outright.  So, I shelved the entire campaign and ran nothing.  I took my ball and went home.

Who was at fault here?  At first, I thought it was the players.  Then, I realized, after reading enough of Alexis' blog, that it was actually my problem, not theirs.  I had the issues here.  I provide a service for the players and my reward is satisfaction at running a game in which they have tons of fun and continually come back for more.  At first I didn't understand entirely what Alexis was getting at.  Now I do.  My fun takes a backseat to the players' fun.  When it dawned on me why I DM and why Alexis' argument is spot-on, I remembered this entry in my record of the old Forgotten Realms campaign.
When I revealed (using Maptool) that the stream had spilled them out at the waterfall, the players cheered in triumph. Yet another seemingly hopeless situation turned into a victory by the PCs.
They cheered in triumph!  I remember it clearly. They had escaped with their lives.  There was backslapping, laughing, fist-pumping.  They had escaped a challenging situation, cheated death, and lived to fight on.  If the campaign had been easy, this escape wouldn't have caused such a strong emotional reaction.  Similarly, if it had been too hard, they'd have become frustrated and felt it was pointless to play.  The strength of the challenge and their ability to overcome was rewarding and that translated to them having fun.

So, it isn't so much the players buying into the DM's idea of a campaign that is important.  It is the DM buying into the players' concept of what would be fun to play that is important.  My enjoyment is derived from the players having a good time and going home hungry to play more.

This led me to thinking about the power-relationship between DM and players.  Alexis discusses a number of them (many of which are dysfunctional or abusive to one or the other).  All of these are indicative of somebody playing out their own deep-seated mental issues in game.  I've long observed that role-playing games are a great way of psychoanalyzing another person and discovering if they're a completely horrible jerk, a functioning psychopath, etc.  Watch how they relate to the other players or the DM.  If they're the DM, watch what they do with the game and how they treat the players.  Personal issues will emerge and play out in game--often to the detriment of the fun level for everyone else involved.

The Forgotten Realms game was also a point in which I realized that group dynamic between players is more important than the concept of "buying in" to the DM's vision of a game.  I went into the Realms game with no overarching narrative in mind.  Let's throw the PCs into a huge sandbox and see what they do.  Here's a few modules--hooks for you guys to start with.  Pick one.  Let's run with it.  The result, at least for Luke, DJ, and Shaun, was fantastic.  Other players who came in and out had trouble.  At first I wondered if I wasn't running well enough.  What I realized, however, is that the players had preconceived notions of what they wanted from the game--notions they either didn't communicate or weren't metacognitive enough to understand they wanted (or worse, so cognitively dissonant about what they wanted that there was no way to please them without deeply analyzing and perhaps overthrowing the entire endeavor).

One of my players wanted to play a True Necromancer.  However, his character was basically an all-around jerk.  He became upset that all of his spells and abilities gradually turned him into a lich and that in the Dales he'd generally have to walk a very, very tight rope or get burned at the stake.  I threw him a few hooks with the Cult of Jergal, a neutral god of death, that he could have followed.  However, he was growing angrier that the populace as a whole would have feared him so severely for riding in on a pale horse with a skeleton army everywhere he went that they'd have tried to exterminate him.  The kicker is... if he had handled his situation differently none of those things would have happened.  However, he was dead-set on being an angry teenager with skeleton minions than someone who could have performed a vital function in society (i.e. tending to the dead, ferrying souls to the afterlife, stamping out evil necromancy, etc.) as a servant of a neutral deity.  Yeah, he'd be feared and been an unsettling person to be around (have you ever seen Departures?) but so long as he didn't act like a threat or like he held everyone around him in absolute contempt, he'd have found a place in the Dales and actually perhaps become a powerful political and social force there.  The problem is, he wanted to play his character a specific way and not deal with the consequences.  More accurately, he was angry that the consequences didn't accommodate his personal fantasies and desires.  In addition, he was only around for about half of the sessions.

The result was, he never really meshed with DJ, Luke, and Shaun.  So, even though he scrapped the True Necromancer character and rolled up an elven archer, he still never really fit in.

Vetting players to ensure they'll fit the party dynamic is hard.  It's also something I'm not sure Alexis has tackled (or even if he believes such vetting is necessary).  I actually have no idea what his take on this is (I haven't found posts on player-group-dynamics yet).  Most people are, as I've said, not very metacogitient and most people also suffer from cognitive dissonance.  Therefore, deducing what they want from a game can be problematic.  Alexis does discuss spoiling players (here) and catering too much to players who whine about class limitations, etc. (here), players who don't support the party against the DM's monsters/villains/etc. (here), sociopathic players (here), and more.  He's got a definite handle on what makes a "bad player."  What I want to know from him (if you're reading, by any chance, Alexis) is whether or not there's a way to decide if a player should even join your game in the first place or if eliminating a player from the game (as opposed to a character) is a bridge best crossed when the player's behavior makes it optimal for the enjoyment of the DM and everyone else.

While the game is primarily about the player's fun, if the DM is becoming actively insulted and frustrated by ignorant players who have no respect for the time and effort the DM puts into creating interesting events, NPCs, scenarios, locations, and materials with which the PCs may interact, then there is a definite problem with the player and it is not the DM's fault.  Boot the guy (or gal).  (Yet two more awesome posts by Alexis here and here.)

Considering I work, am applying for a teaching certificate in two states, and taking education classes--combined with running a bi-weekly Exalted game that requires much more time and effort to prep than a D&D game--I don't have the time to even want to deal with problem players, let alone have them disrupt the precious little time I get to game.  While Luke, DJ, and I are only three, one DM and two players, and we're seeking a third player, the scheduling conflicts make our preferred additions difficult to implement.  There have been suggestions but I'm frankly sick and tired of taking risks on players I don't know for certain aren't going to cause problems and kill immersion.  I put far, far too much of my free time into my games.  It takes work.  In fact, it is taking me more work than ever before to prep for Exalted.  Plenty of players don't get that, I think.  It would be so easy to wing it, make stuff up on the fly (even though I still have to to a small degree) but basing all of the game on arbitrary DM fiat breaks all of the tension and suspense.  I don't care if they'll know or not, it isn't fair.  I'm not reffing the game, I'm controlling the narrative.  No, the DM's job is not to make the game his story.  It's a collaborative effort and the PCs are the main characters.  They should have narrative agency.