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Player Facing Scenarios

Posted by mashugenah on 2014.01.20 at 13:59
When the Forge spawned the "Indie Game Revolution", I was very sceptical. I took my line pretty far - I called out steve_hix over his award of "Best GM" at KapCon for his break-out Indie game, "The Lucky Joneses", a game about dysfunctional families that was finally released last year as Bad Family. I argued that the GM in Indie games had a much lower burden to carry than the traditional GM because the onus is on the players to make the bulk of the fun. Eventually, Dale found the perfect retort to that argument in his concept of "Player Activation", a core principal of his break-through Horror game, EPOCH. The core argument: causing players to make their own fun is harder than it looks. The concept of player empowerment, rather than GM storytelling, has gained an astonishing currency over the past 5 years, and everyone wants to get on board, and it's creating some interesting tensions in the way that games and scenarios are constructed - in some ways I think it's created an ideological tangle that I'd like to pull apart, at least a little.

I started out playing AD&D 1st Edition. I started RPGing just after 2nd Edition came out, but as kids we couldn't afford the current edition. I picked up my PHb at liquidation prices, and one of my regular players had parents who'd given up playing a few years before we began and had a stockpile of AD&D 1st Edition stuff. We spent a happy few years cutting our way through increasingly elaborate, but always implausible, dungeon complexes. The first game I ran that included anything I'd now recognise as roleplaying was Doom of Daggerdale, and it was a revelation. I mean that fairly literally, because the game is about a small town whose tangled and dark underbelly is exposed by the characters. There's a quite complex back-story about wizards who did bad things, and the people they loved, and betrayal and corruption. It made by 12 year old head absolutely spin. What strikes me about it now is that you don't even need the player characters for that story to be compelling. The player characters are disconnected from the action - they are disinterested parties, cutting through the tangle for profit. For the scenario to work, it requires pro-active player characters, whose pro-activity doesn't generate a story about themselves. It has taken the first step to being "player-facing" without being about the player characters.

The game had to be structured that way because there was no way of predicting what characters would encounter the game. I don't think anyone would have been able to write or sell an AD&D 2nd Ed scenario whose PC requirements were a group of human adventurers from a small town with an uncle who was a corrupt constable etc etc. What I learned to do, as I think almost everyone did, was to build up a stockpile of D&D adventures out of Dungeon Magazines, and file off the serial numbers as best we could to re-skin the scenarios for our specific groups. NPCs you'd used in previous games replaced similar characters in the present scenario. Doing that creates a sense of continuity where one doesn't exist naturally.

I think this is still the default design philosophy of most RPG scenarios. I picked up Night's Black Agents recently, and I absolutely love it - for me, it's the best implementation of GUMSHOE so far, and it does everything I could hope for in a Spy game. One of the big selling points of GUMSHOE is, and always has been, it's core idea that games shouldn't bog down in the investigative phase - clues are given out for free. This has often been expressed in terms of ensuring that the players can drive the action, because they're not waiting around for information. The GM advice in NBA calls for the GM to saturate the players with information to force them to decide what to do. Fear Itself is even more upfront about the centrality of the player characters as protagonists. Included in the core book is a starter scenario, "(S)Entries" to get you going - but the player characters enter the scenario in the classic role of adventurers dating back to the dawn of our hobby, as contractors coming in to explore the stories of non-player characters. It's a little disappointing, because I think the bulk of the GM and story advice in the book is aimed at delivering specific stories about specific characters, and it's almost all good advice. It's like a footballer tripping themselves up while doing their touchdown dance. To me, that just proves how insidious and pervasive the old story design paradigms are. The whole design philosophy of the system has been re-oriented around empowering and enabling the player characters, but when the rubber hits the road, the provided sample scenario still has the same basic problem as adversarial D&D's Doom of Daggerdale: For the scenario to work, it requires pro-active player characters, whose pro-activity doesn't generate a story about themselves. It has taken the penultimate step toward being "player-facing" without being about the player characters.

In EPOCH, I think this manifests itself in an emergent tension between the characters' stories as told through flashbacks and the Horror Track. I ran Road Trip yesterday for a group of neophyte gamers, and they grasped the core elements of the horror mechanics within a few minutes. They milked their injuries for dramatic potential, some of them used their flashbacks to evoke a sense of character, they got the drama of the hero/zero decision. At the end of the scenario, they'd gotten a "Hollow Victory", which is the basic result for a group that engages with the premise rather than ignoring it. To get a "Total Victory", they needed to investigate the back-story of a feud between two biker gangs and investigate the history of one faction's grizzly mascot: a mummified human corpse. The scenario background is all very interesting and evocative and all those good things but it's completely irrelevant to the player characters. In logistical terms, they need to set aside the time they're spending on their domestic family drama to explore someone else's.

Solving this problem isn't easy for the scenario designer, especially the EPOCH scenario designer where the possibilities for player character configurations are virtually unlimited, or for the contractor-style setup, where the premise of the game is that some disinterested contractors are going to come in and solve the problems for profit. I've addressed the problem in only two of my games, Succession and the forthcoming Death on the Streets, and then only by placing some pretty severe restrictions on the kinds of characters that can experience the scenario while simultaneously expecting the players to buy into the scenario premise.

There are is a simple thought experiment that the scenario designer can use to evaluate whether their scenario is really player-facing: what happens in the scenario if no player characters arrive on the scene? We're used to thinking about scenarios by setting up a story trajectory that the player characters disrupt. For example in Spirit of the Tentacle, if the player characters don't arrive, the cultists summon a tentacled monster who destroys New York. While running the game, the villains' timetable grinds relentlessly on. What that means is that in effect, the player characters are anti-protagonists. They're not trying to achieve anything, they're trying to just maintain the status quo (of a tentacled monster not destroying NYC). In contrast, in The Hand That Feeds, if the player characters never arrive in town, nothing happens: the situation remains as it is. In both, the characters are explicitly contractors, but in the Hand that Feeds, they characters are creating the story, which is inherently more empowering. If you can't even imagine your scenario without the player characters, then I think odds are good your scenario really has player-character protagonists driving the story.

Another technique is to think about how specific the constraints on the player characters are. Again, I think we're used to this kind of approach indicating robust design. Doom of Daggerdale suits almost any conceivable group of characters, and hence represents robust design. But the trade-off should be obvious: if the supposed heroes of the story are completely interchangeable, are they really the story's heroes? Specificity creates logistical problems for short-run games. I'm sure none of us wants to go back to the days when sitting down for a one-shot scenario required reading 10 pages of world exposition, character background and relationships, and a character sheet requiring a PhD to interpret. The 3 inspirational cards of EPOCH and narrative authority has solved a lot of ergonomic problems with short-run games!

There is no perfect game. There are always trade-offs in designing scenarios. I just hope via this post that one of the central design features in most commercial RPG scenarios is now at least a little clearer, and if you design a scenario with a strong NPC storyline, it's as a conscious design decision.


grandexperiment at 2014-01-20 21:13 (UTC) (Link)
Interesting stuff. One thing I enjoyed about my Tenra Bansho Zero scenario "Goddess of the Dark Tower" is the player facing element you describe. Essentially, I made all of the major players of the story (even the antagonists) into PCs and allowed the players to create and advance the story after one hell of a kicker to start (and a couple of additional prods along the way). What I found also found interesting is that I could have easily made it a more traditional, non-player facing scenario by turning one or two of the PCs into NPCs. That would have made the scenario more reliable in some ways as it would be more under my control as a GM, but the scenario works better as it stands. There is greater genuine tension when PCs interact with potentially antagonistic PCs (possibly one of the appeals of LARPing too).

From a mechanical POV, I found the PTA style fan mail is also a great device for players in such a player facing scenario, as they can encourage and interact with each other outside of playing their PC.
total-party-kill.blogspot.co.nz at 2014-01-24 07:24 (UTC) (Link)
I take your point about investigation in EPOCH - although I do think your own preconceptions and expectations about the importance of investigative elements skews your view somewhat.

The Horror Track has never been central or even important in any EPOCH scenario I've facilitated - it is usually a curiosity, and most often only looked at by the players in the final tension phase. A Hollow Victory is a fairly typical ending in horror movies which are not based around escape - accordingly in scenarios which do not feature a strong lock box component, obtaining a Total Victory is usually only achieved by a deeper engagement with the story (which also reflects a majority of horror movies where the protagonists initially survive the horror then place themselves at further risk in order to explore/rescue/stop the source of the horror).

A correction about Road Trip. It is not necessary to investigate the story of the brothers to secure a total victory - let me quote for the relevant section of the text:

From the Horror Track:
"To achieve Total Victory the characters must destroy all of the Beasts – including characters who have been infected."

In fact, the Horror Track was designed to allow the characters bypass this story entirely: Knowledge of the Beasts and their vulnerability = 6 points, Notifying the Authorities = 4 points, Killing all the Beasts = 8 points leaving either obtaining ranged weapons (2 points) or a source of silver (3 points) to allow for a total victory.

Let's check the facilitation notes:
"Michael and Jake and their rivalry leading to the split between the bikers is a background element only. If the characters choose to explore this further, seek out the bikers as allies, or unravel Michael’s fate, then it should
move into the foreground. However, the characters are under no compulsion to learn any of these details. They may simply ignore the bikers altogether and leave the area."

Then finally:
The Beasts also have a ‘movie-science’ explanation as outlined in The Nature of the Beast. This has been added for two reasons; first if the characters are scientists or researchers (or think to consult some) they should be able to determine an explanation for the manifestation of the Beasts (perhaps explained as the basis for the legend of the
werewolf). Secondly, this analysis should reveal that by simply taking a Vitamin D supplement the extreme dysmorphic effects of the genetic mutation can be permanently suppressed. Deducing this should prompt the
award of a genius card worth 8 points, as it effectively removes the need to exterminate all of the Beasts. This should mean that even infected surviving characters can have a happy ending."

FWIW this was the ending that the surviving Kapcon Road Trip characters secured.
mashugenah at 2014-01-26 09:47 (UTC) (Link)
I take on board your point about the alternate routes you've provided for traversing the adventure. Yet, I don't think that particularly affects the larger point I'm making. The bulk of the scenario text is still oriented toward the bikers' story, and I think the structure of the write-up itself points to the centrality of that story. For example, your "Script Overview" discusses the history of the bikers in detail rather than discussing the events that are likely to unfold during play. Your whole design philosophy for the adventure is that it needs this elaborate back-story in order for the events to make sense to the GM, so the GM can predict responses and extrapolate and interpolate those NPC agendas into the story. The scenario's core stories are NPC stories. You've provided a way for the players to ignore that, which is a great step in the right direction. The presence of those NPC-driven elements however, is part of my point about how pervasive that adventure design paradigm is.

I think this can definitely cut the other way too. Ivan's main critique of Death on the Streets was that he found the NPCs flat and unengaging. He wanted to see more of their internal psychology, and to understand how the story looked from their point of view. He complained partcularly that I'd used story functions instead of names to discuss them in every spot. All of these problems were deliberate design decisions on my part to prevent the NPCs from becoming the focus, and I did everything I could within the EPOCH framework to make the story about the player characters instead. The idea that we shouldn't care one iota about any NPC thought or experience that doesn't have a clear expression inside the fiction, and so that's all I provided. The NPCs exist and take actions purely to assist with telling the story of the PCs. I don't want to claim it's the perfect expression of a player-facing scenario; clearly, it's still got an over-arching narrative that I'm imposing arbitrarily on a group of PCs. What I want to say is that I maximised how player-facing it was within the genre limitations.

I also don't want to say here that one design paradigm is better or worse than the other. What I'm arguing is that scenario designers build in these complex NPC stories without really recognizing what they're doing. I am perfectly fine with non-player-facing scenarios, which includes a decent chunk of what I myself have written and think is good. For example, No Choice Pal is entirely non-player-facing, but it's gotten great reviews from those who've read it, and it plays very well at the table. My GM advice in that scenario is all about trying to get the PCs to engage with the NPC stories that are the central focus of the game, and I acknowledge that the specific PCs provided are pretty much interchangeable with any character with roughly the right skill set for Vampire malarky.

Edited at 2014-01-26 09:51 am (UTC)
total-party-kill.blogspot.co.nz at 2014-01-28 07:54 (UTC) (Link)
If I could change one thing about EPOCH it would be to call the 'Script Overview" the 'Background' or "What has Gone Before" because that's what it is - a background which establishes how the horror has come to exist, and what it wants. Therefore it necessarily includes NPCs (as there are no PCs in the fiction of an EPOCH scenario as there are no pre-generated characters).

I don't so much think the scenario "back-story in order for the events to make sense to the GM, so the GM can predict responses and extrapolate and interpolate those NPC agendas into the story" as I think it needs a compelling human story articulated early-on to stimulate the interest of the GM to read it and visualise running it. The other sections like NPCs, Locations and Facilitation Notes (which you have previously argued should be incorporated into the body of the text) are intended to give a quick access toolkit to achieve the aim you outline.

As for whether " The bulk of the scenario text is still oriented toward the bikers' story, and I think the structure of the write-up itself points to the centrality of that story" I disagree, but accept that people will read and interpret work applying a personal frame that is beyond my control.
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