FYI: My Tastes in Role Playing Games

This is one of those posts bloggers write so that they can repeatedly refer to it later on. I intend this to be a short introduction to role playing (as in nerds at a table with dice, not a couple playing Santa or whatever your kink is) followed by a bit about my tastes and general habits regarding the hobby.

What’s an RPG?

If you want, check out the Wikipedia article on it, but my definition of a role playing game is this: There are some number of players and generally one Game Master (Dungeon Master, Referee, etc. terminology varies). The players and Game Master (GM) are telling a story together. Each player makes a character (a Player Character: PC) and they constitute the main characters of the story. In order to offer some tension for events where chance plays a part in the outcome, the group is generally using a set of rules that uses a randomizing tool (various kinds dice are most popular, but I’ve heard of cards, for instance) to help decide if the characters succeeded or failed at certain tasks. The important thing, here, is this sentence: The players and GM are telling a story together.

The GM is in charge, basically, of running the simulation, as it were. He (please don’t take offense at my use of pronouns, Lady GMs) manages the world, figures out what the various not-protagonist characters (Non-Player Characters: NPCs) are doing, arbitrates the result of any actions taken by the players the outcome of which is not guaranteed, etc. The other thing that the GM does is he plots the stories the group tells together. Plotting for an RPG campaign, however, is significantly different from plotting for a book or movie because the players each control one of the main characters. So the GM ends up getting a general idea of where things are headed, what the major goals of various NPCs are and then how the PCs fit into it all. Then the PCs get in there and muck things up in interesting, fun ways. This collaboration in authorship means (like laying out a web page) letting go of a certain non-trivial amount of control as compared to, say, a novel author.

The Ways of Ben

In my specific group, I’m the GM. I have, right now, three folks playing in the campaign I’m running. In many schools of GM thought, game play from one sitting to the next are strung together to form a “campaign”. The term originates from D&D’s origins in table top war gaming, so it can be a bit of a misnomer as it’s used today. What constitutes “a campaign” varies widely. My definition, which you’re about to read, is not in the majority, but it is how I do things.

In my social circle, a campaign is like a book: It has a beginning, middle and end. There’s some unifying plot that ties it all together. When the plot is done, those characters go away and you read an entirely different story (please ignore Robert Jordan for purposes of this analogy). A lot of people think of a campaign and the game as one and the same. They might be confused or skeptical about the same group of people just putting down one group of characters and making new ones. Campaigns without an end point in mind from the start can last for years and years and they generally increase in power level (trying to out do themselves over and over) to a place where the characters are fighting gods or eating planets or something suitably EPIC. People have fun doing this and that’s great for them, but it’s not for me. It starts to feel like a TV show that’s been running too many seasons in a row (better bring in Henry Winkler and some skis). I like a narrative arc and I like to pick the amount of epicness from the get go and have it be relatively stable. Also, having campaigns with a designed ending lets me change settings and try on a lot of different ideas. Which leads me to my next point.

My system of choice is GURPS. You can follow that link or not, but suffice it to say that it stands for Generic Universal RolePlaying System. It’s basically a toolkit of rules without any setting information (contrast the famous Dungeons & Dragons, which describes the world the game is played in to great detail). The thing I like about this aspect is that you can play a D&D-like fantasy campaign to completion, then play a space opera and then play a police procedural or something. The ability to try out one thing for a while (length of my campaigns varies wildly, so take that with a grain of salt) and then entirely change gears for the next campaign is a big draw for me. As a GM I really enjoy the world-creation aspect and so I’m constantly thinking about what worlds would be fun to play in and what stories would be fun to play out in them; what kind of interesting people might live there. You get the idea. That’s not the only reason I like GURPS, but I don’t want to evangelize too much. Maybe that’s a future post.

Another thing I do that I’ve heard very few people talk about is I’ve got a GM consultant. This is new as of my most recent campaign, but it’s worked out so well, I can’t imagine why I’d stop doing things this way unless the consultant turned into a player. Basically, the friend who introduced me to GURPS moved away and, in order to get his role playing fix, offered to help me hash over things with the world building of the campaign I was thinking of running. I recommend this technique to every GM that can swing it. Having two minds on the task, as long as you work well together, is an incredible boon. Your NPCs will seem more real and your world can afford to be more complex. It’s easier to track more events happening at once and you’re both going to think of cool things that the other wouldn’t have. I feel like it’s been multiplicative rather than additive to the quality of the campaign world.

Most RPG groups make a “party” or other group of characters that more or less always act in concert. They make decisions together and go do things all as a group. Lengthening the parade of unconventionality, that’s not how I do things. If your character is not in the scene, you’re not in the room. For some campaign settings, that means players (especially early on) can spend a non-trivial amount of time in my living room playing Rock Band or whatever instead of role playing. The win is that by containing information, you can, for instance, more easily dole out clues to each of the players and have them piece it together later when they’re all in. This is cool for the players, not for the GM, I should note. The other thing it does is it lets each player get used to his character and how to play him without the noise of other players doing the same thing; to establish a sort of a base line. It takes a while to really figure out how to inhabit a character you’re playing and unlike other kinds of acting, there aren’t really rehearsals.

I’ve implied that there’s a stage, early on, where the characters aren’t spending a lot of time together. This is a symptom of what my GM-consultant and I call the Dann-style Campaign (Dann was the guy that introduced my consultant to GURPS). Dann-style Campaigns are very formulaic, but it is a formula that works very well. There are 3 (less commonly 4) PCs. They don’t know each other at the start of the story and they all have different goals, needs and reasons for doing things. There is some kind of plot or conspiracy or mystery going on and their various goals draw them into being involved in it, which causes them to meet and discover/uncover/solve it together. The entire campaign general centers around a single, well developed location (say a single city). The fact that the characters are strangers and have different goals means they don’t trust each other right off. The fact that they have different (possibly opposed) goals means they want different things to get done or have different priorities for things to get done. Together, those two facts make it not uncommon for a player to say, “Great. You guys go do that, I’ll catch up with you later,” and then go do his own thing.

I hope this makes a bit of sense to the uninitiated. If you’ve read anything by William Gibson, he uses this sort of story telling a lot. There will be several independent stories going on that, in the end, all have to do with each other in some way and come crashing together at some point in the tale. Now, Gibson tends to have things come together in the final act. In a Dann-style campaign, you generally want the PCs to all meet and start collaborating around the half-way point of the first act. “Act”, here, is a vague unit of story-telling, not anything specific, mind.

Or think of a show like Lost, where the characters are strangers at the start and there’s a high level of distrust and paranoia about each other. People spend a fair amount of time doing things on their own. From setting to setting, of course, the level of distrust can be dialed up or down. In Lost, the level of distrust is rather high between some protagonists and there’s a fair amount of alliance shifting as time goes on. In a Dann-style campaign, you wouldn’t have as many PCs as Lost has main characters and so shifting alliances between them would be somewhat tricky to do if you wanted it.

All of this is really in service to the next post I want to write which addresses some ideas I’ve been batting around about how and what to vary up in the Dann-Style formula. It seemed that, before I talked about variations, I should do a kind of an introduction to my style and, then, that an introduction to what an RPG is, etc. seemed appropriate. If you have questions about anything I’ve put here, post a comment and I’ll be happy to answer it. Be warned, I may try to convince you that you should give role playing a try.