Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hamlet's Hit Points [RPG book review]

I've been buying very few actual gaming books lately, but have been slowly adding books about RPG's and GM techniques to my library.  The latest is a book called Hamlet's Hit Points by Robin Laws.  For those who don't know, Laws is one of those game designers who has had his thumb in the pie of so many different RPG's out there he didn't even bother listing his bona vides in the back of the book.

The core thesis behind Hamlet's Hit Points is that in movies and plays (and their descendants radio shows and television programs), there are nine identifiable "beats," specific moments in the narrative flow with a purpose.  There are two major kinds of beats: procedural, which either move the protagonist towards or away from an external goal; and dramatic, which move the protagonist towards or away from an internal goal (such as a personal relationship).  The movement towards and away from a goal creates two emotional responses from the viewer: hope and fear, which Laws illustrates graphically as up and down arrows.

The other seven kinds of beats are minor in nature but also create a positive or negative response, or on rare occasion a lateral move.  These minor beats are things like "Question," which poses an unknown element to the protagonist and viewer, or "Gratification" which is usually a positive bit of fan service, or "Pipe" which is an apparently random or pointless element that will have greater significance later.

To illustrate how this works, Laws painstakingly goes through three works--Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the movies Dr. No and Casablanca, and highlights every beat, scene by scene.  There is a graphic layout of the movement up and down and the beat involved across the top of the pages as he does this.  It is an impressive bit of research on his part, and effective in its execution, although on rare occasion I noticed that the graphic didn't always match the text when it came to up- and down-arrows.

When the rubber hits the RPG road isn't until the very end, when Laws talks about how this whole concept can be incorporated into running a game.  It's interesting that after 186 pages of introducing the concept and giving three examples, the chapter on how this works in an RPG setting on a practical level is six pages long.  That's because what Laws is mostly doing is trying to get GM's to be aware of the dynamic, to teach how to identify and observe, and then manipulate as necessary.  Most of the practical notes suggest things like finding a useful way to track ups-and-downs in gameplay and then documenting afterwards.  I could envision myself creating two vertical charts, almost like a barometer, and moving a token up and down the chart as events unfold.  The goal is to prevent too much consistent movement in either direction, because that can produce apathy and disengagement for the players.

That makes a lot of sense to me.  I've watched my group steamroll through encounters without a sweat and while it is fun to indulge in that kind of adolescent fantasy power trip, I can also tell when they start breaking out their smartphones and surfing the web.  By the same token, on the rare occasion everything goes wrong, I can also see their glowering and sulking and pulling back as well.  I'm going to try to see if being mindful of the ups and downs helps with this.

I also could see myself outlining RPG sessions differently, structuring them according to possible procedural and dramatic turns, and salting them with the other seven.  It probably isn't anything I haven't done before, but not as intentionally with this vocabulary.

Anyways, a fascinating book, even if it is just to recount two movies I like a great deal with new insight.  Recommended.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

More Tiles

With my not running anything these days I have time to just cast and paint and make more dungeon tiles, like these. 

Campaign Distictions

I've been kicking this post around for a while, but it seemed like a good time to go ahead and publish it.

One of the real frustrations that I have experienced when running RPG's is when the players, for whatever reason, create Player Characters that just don't fit.  Maybe it is ego.  Maybe it is a belief that discordant PC's are better PC's, or will have more advantages, or more of a story.   Maybe they just thought it was a good fit, even it is wasn't.

As an example, when I first ran Vampire: the Masquerade lo those many moons ago, I was planning on doing a pretty typical V:tM campaign with internecine plots and Machiavellian politics.  I had two problems.  The first was the player who wanted to play a werewolf (this was before there even was a werewolf RPG from White Wolf).  The second was a player who wanted to play Batman.  Seriously, his PC's concepts would be that he would wear a mask, fight crime, and drink the blood of criminals and blood banks.  It was like Red Rain.

Unsurprisingly, it didn't work.  The werewolf PC was excluded from most of the action because it took place in vampire enclaves.  The superhero PC ran into trouble when he unwisely chose to break into a police station and steal a bunch of crime-fighting gear (turns out Obfuscation 1 doesn't work on security systems).

It was a mess.  But what can a GM do to avoid it without being too heavy-handed about PC creation?  To avoid this, I'm experimenting in my proto-campaign for Prowlers & Paragons with something I invented from Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, namely the idea of Campaign Distinctions.

In MHR, Distinctions are like FATE's Aspects which can describe a PC (e.g. Captain America has "Sentinel of Liberty" and "Man from another time").  Distinctions can also describe locations (a SHIELD base might have "high tech security" or "Hydra double agents") which can be invoked to the player's benefit.

Over at the Plot Points blog I saw a contributor float the idea of having superhero teams have their own XP triggers, which means the players get XP when the PC's act in a stereotypical manner of that particular superhero team.  For example, when the X-Men face prejudice, or when the Avengers disband and reform, the PC's get an XP bonus, because they are emulating the genre.  ICONS had a similar idea, but applied their own Distinction/Aspect mechanic to superhero teams instead.  For example, the Teen Titans might have the Distinctions "Sidekicks with something to prove," "Adolescent Drama," and "Please for the love of God keep Cartoon Network away from us."

So as I was thinking about kicking off a superhero campaign, and all the ways discordant PC creation could make a hash of it, I thought, why not create campaign Distinctions as a way of illustrating to the players what they should expect?  So for my own campaign, I came up with the following:

High Cape-and-Spandex Quotient.  Translation: keep your giant shoulder pads, gritty action, and crypto-fascism at home.  This campaign features heroes with colorful costumes, secret identities, and villains with a tendency to monologue a lot.

Reactive Heroes and Proactive Investigators. Translation: while a lot of stories will feature the plot mechanic of the heroes getting word of some problem and rushing to the scene, the players will also be expected to do some bird-dogging when it comes to figuring out what is going in the campaign.

Everything can be explained with Pseudo-Science (for now).  Translation: when it comes to the "how" of superheroes and villains, I'm curtailing the origin options to those which are grounded in sketchy science, rather than introducing magic and other far-out concepts just yet.  Partially this is to keep the "cosmology" of the campaign contained to the point of being manageable, and to make it easier for me to massage the PC group into a whole.

I could see this being used to help give players a quick overview in other kinds of campaigns.  A Star Wars campaign using Edge of Empire or Traveller mechanics (*wink, nudge*) could have "Rogues and Scoundrels," "Aliens Everywhere," and "The Darkness Between the Stars."  A megadungeon D&D campaign with gonzo monsters and resource management could have "Descent into the Depths," "Not your Father's orcs," and "Keep track of the torches."  You get the idea.

Thoughts and comments welcome!
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