Raising the Bar

By | October 13, 2012

Good evening all!

We’re a little late getting our post out today, but is it ever a big one.  This is another post from Ray Watters, the lead designer of our social system, in which he tackles one of those ancient roleplaying tropes that preys upon his mind:  starting a game in a bar or tavern, and what assumptions can lurk under the surface of games that use such a starting point.  His take, after the break:

It’s a cliché older than the roleplaying hobby itself – a group of traveling companions meet for the first time at the local tavern.  After a few drinks and stories – and perhaps a bar fight or two – the brand new group has its first adventure delivered via the GM Fiat Express.

You don’t have to read far into any book about running a roleplaying game without this trope being mentioned. Usually, the author points out that this staple of the genre is overused and offers some suggestions on how to avoid it.

Unfortunately many books and blogs advocate avoiding this cliché for the wrong reason – that the idea is so old and so often used. That’s not the problem.  People have agreed to meet each other at a tavern, bar, nightclub or another other local gathering spot pretty much since humans decided that living in cities was a good idea.

The problem is the host of assumptions that go into the decision to speed up the first session by starting at the tavern, in a jail cell or wherever else the plot fairy decided to deposit the players.

First off, all variations of this trope basically force everyone to start in the same room at the same time. This means creating a character who wouldn’t logically be there is subtly discouraged. Someone on the run from assassins probably wouldn’t be out carousing. The pious priest might not even want to step foot in a place where strong spirits are served. And a wizened academic probably doesn’t stay up too late.

“Well,” someone might say, “little inconsistencies like that can be handwaved for the introduction.” They would be right, of course. But if the very first scene of the very first session basically has to declare, “Don’t bother playing your characters just yet,” something is wrong. It reveals that the beginning of such a game isn’t actually the real beginning. It’s preboarding. Everyone is waiting in line to buy tickets before getting on the railroad.

And just who is assumed to be waiting in that line? The answer should be familiar to pretty much anyone who has frequented Internet forums about fantasy gaming. It goes something like this: Characters are basically treasure hunters who drink, eat, buy healing potions by the barrel and sell off large amounts of blood-soaked used goods to finance their next “expedition” into some soon-to-be-slain creature’s living room.

“Murder hobo” is just one of many terms coined to describe such player characters. The tavern is merely a place to hire replacements and restock before the next home invasion.

The assumption behind this stereotype is even more grim: that the very people who go out of their way to play a roleplaying game don’t actually want to roleplay. And for those who believe such things, any flimsy excuse to avoid all that pesky talking at the beginning of the game is good since it gets everyone to the “real adventure” faster.

Few, if any, games start out with all these assumptions. But these ideas continue to be expressed in gaming stories and Internet gaming forums. So let’s examine these assumptions. If too much talking gets in the way of the supposed “real adventure,” just what is the presumed way for players to participate in the game?

Post a question to any gaming forum asking if a character should be built to dominate in combat or to reflect character development, and then go make some popcorn. The resulting days-long dispute will tell you that there is no agreement on that question in the gaming community.

And there’s a good reason for that: every player wants something different out of the game. Some people want to talk. Some players want to scheme. Others want to build a tactical powerhouse to devastate their enemies. All of these options – and many, many more – are what gives roleplaying games such broad possibilities.

Generic openings seek to limit those possibilities, often because of lack of time or communication between the players and the person running the game. But this ultimately reinforces the idea that roleplaying is just another version of wargaming that uses fewer miniatures per person.

Games such as Dungeons & Dragons grew out of wargaming because the designers and the players wanted to do more than just fight. There was a strong emphasis on exploration and, over time, on developing a character that wasn’t just another faceless piece of cannon fodder.

And that’s really what is at stake here: player choices. A stock opening means the players did not decide which tavern to visit. Perhaps one character works in a tavern, or has friends a local tavern. She would probably suggest going there for camaraderie and because she likes the food.

Why would anyone in charge of the game take away a chance to make a choice like that? Probably because he assumes few, if any, of the player characters have strong ties to the starting locale.

The simple fact is there’s little reason to visit any place in a standard published adventure that isn’t selling something. And that makes sense – the point of most premade adventures is to provide a conflict and a place for the players to resolve the conflict. Beyond that, everything else tends to become fluff. And while enough effort can make that work, such adventures do little to make the players feel like they are in a living, breathing world.

So, we have a host of assumptions and problems that can crop up before a roleplaying game even begins. Trying to quickly skip past those can make some players feel as if they have little chance to impact the game. That can lead players to drop out in hopes that the next game offers more of what they were looking for to start with.

The fact remains, however, that every game must start somewhere. And beginning with each player far from one another can be a recipe for disaster since the entire point of most games is to work together as a group. Waiting for a couple hours for the whole party to finally assemble is little better than forcing everyone to start out side by side.

Dealing with these issues is something most people learn through trial and error – assuming everyone sticks around long enough. Infinite Earths is built on a design outlook and multiple mechanics meant to make this much less of an ordeal.

The first tool is Session Zero, in which players collaboratively create their characters and the party. Basically, this first session allows the players to organically develop characters and any connections between them in a collaborative way before the game starts. Thus, the person who will plan the sessions has a good idea of what the players would like to see during their adventures.

This person is called the Adventure Guide in Infinite Earths – in part because he shows potential paths to the players and because he makes decisions on behalf of the NPCs that are guided by the players’ actions and the logical consequences of those actions.

After Session Zero, the next step for any Guide to decide how to start a game is to look at the vocational roles the players choose.

The vocation role is a means of earning money and making things for the players to use during the game – everything from weapons and armor, to potions and magic to castles and wondrous new inventions.

But the vocation system in Infinite Earths is more than just a convenient way to describe what skills a player character begins play with. It also shows ties to the world, job training and the idea that the character is part of the greater community in some way.

There are Talents available to the vocation role that reflect training by a grand master, apprentices and other ties to a profession that provide a tangible benefit to the player. All of these provide potential story hooks for the first session and every session after.

But the strongest indication that players can give the Guide as to what sort of game they would like to play comes from their Personas. This role helps shape a character’s existing relationships in the world. These relationships provide a mechanical and story benefit for the player. Before the game begins, the player decides if their character has several established relationships that are just beginning or deeper relationships with fewer individuals or groups.

These relationships with others are recorded right on the character sheet – a list of good friends, acquaintances, former or current coworkers, and perhaps even enemies.

The benefits to strong relationships are unmistakable. Players have people to help them in a variety of ways and the Guide gains story hooks to help make the world more interesting and believable.

So, when the Guide writes the first session he’ll be able to pull from the characters’ backstories and jobs, their colleagues, friends and interests to decide how to start things out. He’ll also have the entire Session Zero to give him an idea of what the players will respond to in a positive way. And, in turn, Session Zero gives him a chance to float ideas to the players about themes for the campaign and where to start things off before he begins writing.

The result is that the guide no longer has the burden of writing what the players should do in the first session – or even the twenty-first. Instead, he allows the characters and players to tell him what they would like to do. Those ideas are combined with his own ideas about what the NPCs want do to make an interactive story that players and guide shape from the beginning to the end.

Collaborative storytelling with dice is not a new idea by any means. But giving players and Guides a good foundation for their games has the potential to make things easier and, we hope, that much more fun. There are entire worlds out there for players and guides to explore. Andso long as everyone has a voice in what happens, it is much easier to start off on the right foot.

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