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.


D.J.M. said...

I love the surprises that follow my actions. This is an RPG that will exceed and replace any video game. We where told at the beginning, this shit is serious, your character may die in one battle or after 100. This game has no save points, we are our characters and we play as they would live. Dave my cousin you do not play favorites you play logic, how other NPCs would act and treat us. You should try and recap what we have done until now or after mondays secession. I love the recap you do it reminds me like an AAR(army action review) and shows me what we did, who did the "best", and/or show me my character the way you saw him. I play what I know from doing or watching movies. Brick walls with a heart, basically. Your narration of the game is well.. cinematic, as in you make me want to watch what we just played. I would say kinda like how NCIS or Firefly. As in no matter how bad an episode you like it because of the character or the story telling. Great men are capable of doing great evils:however, they decide to do the right (social contract) and fight the evil doers as much as possible. For those who can read this... this is vodka at it's finest. Anywho, cousin 'O mine we need to play more, and you need to recap more. For anyone who has played with you will say... we need to grab a drink and play something more often.

Dave Cesarano said...

I think you missed the point of this, Deej. While I definitely appreciate the praise, man, seriously, what I'm trying to get at here is a discussion of our play style.

However, if you and Luke are having that much fun in my game, well, I must be doing something right. I just like to over-analyze stuff.

D.J.M. said...

I was drinking, I did understand what you where trying to do here. I wanted to add my 2 cents.

Alexis Smolensk said...

It is because I am not familiar with the mechanic that I cannot see how it creates dramatic tension in the way you describe. Please forgive me if I've misunderstood something, and I'm now about to go off in totally the wrong direction. It is only because what you've written is a bit incoherent mixed with a lot of mechanical references I don't know.

It is only that I fail to see how anything described here requires a mechanic. The players are invested, they want something, there is competition, the competition and the players go head to head, there are consequences, etc. OF COURSE this can happen in a D&D game. Where you say, "... there is no such associated mechanic enforcing [sic] players to deal with the various side-effects of their character concept," I take great exception.

There is a mechanic. It is called the 'DM.'

Are you seriously arguing that the game is better because it offers a table/process that bypasses your initiative by forcing you to roll on the table in order to make something happen? I love tables. I create them, I employ them. But if I had no tables, I would simply sit, use my brain and think, "this could happen in response to what the party is doing, or this could happen, or this." Then I decide, "What will create the BEST game for the longest period of time, for THESE players?" And I go with that idea.

Does this bother you? Does it feel like a railroad? Because it isn't. The NPCs are like the mountains and the rivers and the streets and the buildings. Their actions are created just like you decided that Park Avenue crosses Gingold Street. You didn't have a table for that.

The railroad only happens when you force the players to behave in a particular way in order to ensure a particular result. Inserting Dekland by table or Dekland by imaginative fiat is indistinguishable.

But maybe that is not what you're saying. In that case, this is all completely over my head. I don't know what point you're making. I don't see how narrativist/simulationist tags make any difference. I don't see why Ren's virtue of compassion should somehow mean that an innocent man can't die because of his free-form actions. This happens all the time - it is a major theme in art. Do you want film examples for it? How does that mean that you, the DM, have somehow failed?

Sorry. I'm lost. Where the story line is player-agency motivated, why would you expect to be able to predict what happens? Why should it matter to you that the death was an intended theme? Life is not a set of intended themes. If you're going to throw out the railroad, you're going to get a lot of unintended consequences. How does that make your game play a 'failure?' I can't make any sense out of your issues.

They seem like a bunch of non-issues being crammed into the mood someone else invented that you can't seem to cram into your game.

It sounds like a good game. Why don't you just let it be that?