Five Things Gamers Can Learn From The Princess Bride

Do I need to link back to previous installments? Maybe you should follow my blog more closely instead! Maybe you should be a vet or fly a jet. I don’t know, I’m not the boss of you. But if you like these, keep sending submissions, this one is from Luke Parsons.

1. Don’t Fear The Bluff Check

There’s a tendency for GMs to fear charismatic PCs. There you are setting up an amazingly difficult or complex combat encounter and then one smart-ass in the party convinces the ogre to turn into a mouse and boom, it’s all over – and it feels like cheating. Now, sure you can use the same mechanics for all challenges but regardless it’s important to understand what good bluff checks look like and how they can enhance your story – and how they’re an essential part of picaresque adventure. And Princess Bride is build on amazing Bluff checks that show how it should be done.

It does this first of all by just assuming that this is a standard, not an afterthought: the three trials Wesley must undergo are skill, strength and wits. Building it into the framework means you and your players will anticipate it and use it often, which is the key to not making it feel like a cheat. Good fight scenes appear in games because we do them all the time, good bluffs appear if we do them all the time. The most memorable ones in Princess Bride include Wesley bluffing Humperdink about his strength and bluffing the gate guards with the holocaust cloak, because they have the most riding on them, but bluffs are everywhere if you look. The sword fight between Inigo and Wesley involves both of them bluffing, and Wesley lies to Buttercup to test her love. And the bad guys, of course, lie like rugs. Then there’s the intimidate checks (“I have no gatekey”) and the persuades (“Please, I need to live”), and the bit where Wesley is climbing and can’t trust Inigo’s word because of all the bluffing going on. As you can see despite being famous for swordfights Princess Bride is thick with charisma tests and it’s because they come so thick and fast that they don’t feel like cheats. They feel like part of getting things done. Build them in to everything and they’ll work so much better.

2. Make Your Villains Talented

One of the reason we fear the bluff test is it can make your villains look like punks. It’s a tough road to hoe for GMs – you want your players to kick ass but you want to honour their awesome by making that victory feel difficult. Sometimes a villain can be pathetic like a Wormtongue or a Renfield but mostly we like villains to be spectacular in their own way. Common ways to do this is with the intricacies of their plans and the height of their ambition, but these are often invisible to the PCs since they are caught within them, and even with cut scenes and prologues to let them know the bad guy, you can’t give away too much of the plot or you’ll ruin the game. Princess Brides’ excellent solution is to give the villains great talents that are somewhat tangential to their plots. Part of this is obvious in Inigo and Fezzik, who quickly become PCs because they’re so awesome, but also in the true villains.

Principally among this is Humperdink’s hunting skills. Even the woman who hates him says without doubt that he could track a falcon on a cloudy day. Rugen, meanwhile, is a master of science and technology. Mad science, perhaps, but his intelligence is undeniable. And the two care about each other as only old friends can, which isn’t just a one-off joke but another way of showing the virtues of these men. And when Humperdink’s plans begin to unravel, he shows fear and anger, screaming into Wesley’s face with his rage at her inability to forget her farmboy and love a king, fear storming across his face when Buttercup catches him in lies. He may be a moral vacuum but Humperdink CARES and we admire him for that. It’s even possible that war with Guilder is a good idea for the future of Florin – there’s certainly evidence that Humperdink is a visionary and plans far ahead. And he’s no fool – he triples the gate guard and doesn’t take unnecessary risks and lives as a result. He probably even gets his war. But we still feel he gets enough comeuppance because the heroes get what they came for and get away. Sometimes, as GMs we put our villains up to be killed because our angry players really want that last blow to fall to “win” the game. Don’t do that, at least, not much. Give them other goals that matter more and the villain will resonate more as he lives on to show off more of his great talents.

3. Never Skimp On Your B-Plot

Speaking of other goals, Princess Bride’s A-Plot is, even with its funny twists and turns and genre-subversions, is pretty run-of-the-mill. Dashing young man wants his lady back from the evil king. And sure, it’s B-Plot is not exactly ground-breaking: boy seeks revenge against the man who killed his father. But if you ask anyone what they really remember about Princess Bride, the thing that made the film legendary and enduring, it is Inigo’s story. Inigo is cooler than Wesley but more than that he is more complicated – he is driven by a much darker passion, twisted with frustration and agony, and it has led him into drunkenness and thievery. As much as Wesley claims to be the Dread Pirate Roberts it is hard to imagine him really doing much piracy, whereas there’s a darkness and sadness in Inigo that speaks of terrible sacrifices and black choices. A lot of this comes about by accident (and casting), but a weaker story might have skimped on Inigo’s denouement. At the very climax of the story when they are desperate to get Buttercup and escape, the film takes fifteen minutes to follow Inigo’s plot. And we linger on him at the start as well, his history and background is explored intimately before he even crosses swords with Wesley.

As GMs we tend to want to keep things simple. A good adventure has a single plot line with a clear, obvious goal, so that everyone knows what they’re trying to do and when they’ve done it. We might be tempted therefore, should a player want to fulfill a personal side-quest, to give them short shrift. Don’t so that. Remember time is entirely elastic in fiction, and if your A-plot is as nice and simple as described, there’s no problem putting it on hold for half an hour, those clear lines will make it easy to pick up again. You know you need to get from A to B but you can keep that while still allowing the player to skew off to C and come straight back. So let them, and indulge them. Because precisely because they don’t feel like the A-plot they often have more resonance with the players; they feel more like they chose them and that they define them more. Everyone knows the evil wizard’s going to die but that game where you found your ex-girlfriend along the way may stick with you for life.

4. Death Is Never The End

The other reason I think people like The Princess Bride is it is surprising. It’s a see-saw plot but to an extreme level most people don’t expect: it’s not just that the heroes have successes and failures, they have EXTREME success and failures. Sometimes things are so bleak characters have no option except suicide (with dagger or shrieking eels) other times it’s a delightful romp. Sometimes they get what they want only to lose it a second later or discover it is the same as losing everything. Wesley and Buttercup survive the Fire Swamp only to end up back in Humperdink’s clutches; enemies become allies and Buttercup is constantly having her love and hope snatched away from her. Indeed, in the first five minutes of her story, she goes from haughty mistress to love-struck fool to heart-shattered bereaved. It is the latter, of course, that the story hinges on: twice, Buttercup thinks Wesley is dead and gives up hope, and twice is proved wrong at her lowest hour.

This isn’t just the theme of the film, though, it’s good story-telling in general. Yes, we get sick of bad guys watching the water surface and assuming the hero must be dead, but death not being the end works as a trope because it hits us in our heart of hearts. We know – and this is doubly true in a game where things have stats – that death is the ultimate end. We don’t need memento moris to remind us; death stalks us everywhere. Stories allow us the audacity of hope against that, to believe in miracles, to say to the god of death not today. Can it be contrived? Yes. But even the most impossible survivals can be believed if written well, which is what you see in Princess Bride. We shouldn’t buy for a moment that the deadliest pirate ever lets one man live – but we do, because we ache for it to be true and because Wesley tells it so well. We shouldn’t buy that terrifying life sucking torture is survivable but we do because it’s deliberately NOT a “natural” death. You can use your magic or your superpowers or whatever the same way: set up deaths that aren’t open and shut. Bury the body under an avalanche of rock. Allow for the possibility that they’ve been merely sucked into an alternative dimension or can be pulled out of hell. If zombies and liches exist, then there may be other ways to reverse death. If you build these things in advance, we will buy it when death isn’t the end. And the great thing about doing this is it means when people are really are dead, it hurts EVEN MORE.

5. Make Resurrection Count

The caveat to point four is this one: cheating death is only okay if it is hard. Even in a film as silly as Hudson Hawk, the last-minute resurrection of Tommy at the end cheapens everything because it’s not justified in the slightest. Yes, “I escaped somehow” can work if done at the right time, but not to beat back death. Death is just too important to be cheated like that. And Princess Bride shows there are two distinct parts of this: the buy out, and the cost. Wesley saves himself from death with a plea, but then can’t simply return to Buttercup because he is trapped being Roberts’ valet. The quest to engage Miracle Max brings Wesley back but the cost is his persistent floppiness. For something to hit home as a cost, it needs to both parts of the equation. You also need a time period where people really doubt they can come back, as well, so that’s three parts. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

D&D’s magic tends to invalidate the first one, but almost all games forget the second one as well. Great quests or epic items are required but then things are good as new. You don’t have to come back like Christopher Walken in the Dead Zone but a small penalty to your character’s rolls will make death’s sting so much more real. Something that slows down the whole party is even better, like not being able to cast the spells or pick the locks they depend on quite as much. And this applies on the small scale as well as the large. When someone goes down to zero hit points, leave them hanging for a while before announcing their fate. Move the spotlight somewhere else. It hurts, but it’s the good kind of hurt. And then when it comes to those stabilizing rolls, put the focus on them. Get the players to tell you what they’re doing to bring their friend back to life. Get some blood on their tunics. This is important. Death is important. Most of our RPGs are about fighting for our lives, if you don’t care about death and the reset button, you cheapen every part of the game, not just those moments.

Indeed, perhaps the single greatest moment in Princess Bride is when Inigo “dies” – and then comes back, using just his persuade skill to do it. The ultimate bluff check, perhaps, for the ultimate resurrection, in the ultimate B-Plot, fighting one of the ultimate villains. But we buy it. We buy a man coming back to life and we even forget he’s still holding in his guts when they find the horses. Because it hurts so much when it happens, and the buy out is so tricky, and he doesn’t just spring back to his feet he staggers up inch by inch, building momentum into an avalanche that is one of the greatest scenes in film, because of how it goes from total death to total victory. Make them work for defeating it, and you never need to actually kill them. They’ll remember the work so much more than any fait accompli. They’ll remember a reversal a thousand times more than a simple end.

 

Estalia Preview #6: New Spells

I have to tell you that the book is stalled again. Layout is a fiendish and complicated beastie now we’re down to the last few chapters, because it’s in those chapters that we have tables and lists and stat blocks (if anyone wants to help out, let us know! Many hands make faster work!)

What’s that you ask? Do we have new rules in all those tables and statblocks? Why, what would a sourcebook be without cool new powers to use upon your enemies? Poorly reviewed and undersold, that’s what. So no, we don’t just bring you setting information. There are a set of new monsters, new chargen tables, fencing powers and of course, new spells for the servants of the Maiden. 33 to be exact. Here’s six to give you a taste:

Apprentice to Master

 Casting Number: 12

Casting Time: Special

Duration: Special

Range: You

Ingredient: A tool used to build a great temple (+2)

Description: As part of the casting of this spell, you must watch another individual creating something using a Perform or Trade skill.  Until the next sunrise, you gain the skill you observed. You may use this skill as many times as your Magic characteristic, then the knowledge fades from your hands.

 

Arena of Reckoning

 Casting Number: 14

Casting Time: Half Action

Duration: Instant

Range: Touch

Ingredients: A circlet of gold (+2)

Description: When you cast this spell, you and one target are locked in combat to the death. An immovable magical aura rises surrounding only the two of you (just enough to cover your two squares with about a foot of give around) – any others that might be caught are flung out. Aside from a Dispel spell, the aura remains totally impenetrable to anything and anyone until either you or the target are dead.

 

Arms of the Sister

 Casting Number: 10

Casting Time: Half Action

Duration: 1 minute (6 rounds)

Range: You

Ingredients: A broken arrow (+1)

Description: When you strike, you strike with the arms of Shallya, Myrmidia’s merciful sister. When striking to Stun, you automatically succeed on the Strength test. If you strike to wound while the spell is in effect, it immediately ends.

 

Beacon in the Tempest

Casting Number: 9

Casting Time: Half Action

Duration: 1 minute (6 rounds)

Range: 24 yards (12 squares)

Ingredients: An owl’s beak (+1)

Description: While Myrmidia’s faithful command soldiers, they must also look to those who cannot fight. All allies within range can hear your voice as clearly as if they were standing next to you, and can understand you whatever language they speak. Your voice sounds calming and wise, and those who hear it gain a +10% bonus to Willpower tests to resist Initimdate tests, and Fear or Terror effects for the next hour.

 

Beautify Object

Casting Number: 9

Casting Time: Half action

Duration: 1 hour/Magic

Range: Touch

Ingredients: A paintbrush (+1)

Description: You apply a beautifier’s eye and hand to one object you nominate. The object’s Craftsmanship goes up one level (Poor to Common, Common to Good, Good to Best).  You may Beautify as many objects as your Magic characteristic. Weapons enhanced in this manner gain the standard bonuses. However, Myrmidia frowns upon deception for profit and any attempt to sell items enhanced by this spell cause the glamour to immediately vanish and the deception to be revealed.

 

Blade for Blade

Casting Number: 10

Casting Time: Half Action

Duration: 1 minute

Range: You

Ingredients: A silvered blade (+2)

Description: When you cast this spell you can see the attacks of your enemies coming towards you as if in slow motion. You may parry as many times per round as your Magic characteristic. You may still only parry once per attack.

 

Boon of Surrender

Casting Number: 15

Casting Time: Half Action

Duration: Instant

Range: 24 yards

Ingredients: A ring of silver (+2)

Description: When you cast this spell, you demand that your enemies surrender (making Charm or Command tests as the GM directs). All enemies you can see within range of the spell who cease fighting immediately heal 1d10 Wounds. They also cease to be Frightened, Terrified or subject to frenzy if they were previously.  Those who do not surrender suffer -10% on their next WS or BS roll. For the next hour, if the subjects of the spell attack or direct harm towards you or a number of your allies equal to your Magic characteristic, the subject loses 1d0 Wounds.

Five Things Gamers Can Learn From Some Like It Hot

I asked people for submissions of films, TV shows or other properties they’d like to see covered, and they came in a flood. I might be able to do one a week all year. Maybe make a whole blog around it or turn it into a book. Maybe not. But if you’ve got suggestions you’d like to see, send them in. I fully believe the universe is our sourcebook and everything  has a lesson for us, even if some of them are don’ts. So what can we learn about plotting out RPG adventures from a classic Billy Wilder comedy? A lot of course. Such as:

  1. Sell Your Bit and Sell It Hard

Some Like It Hot’s entire first act involves two guys on skid row. They lose their meal ticket when their speak-easy gets busted by the law, leaving them out in the freezing cold of Depression-era Chicago in winter. Then they get a death threat put on them when they witness a crazed mobster violently mowing down six members of a rival gang. When they decide to dress in drag they do it because the other option is death. These days, movie audiences are lazier; we’ve been told the concept in previews and we find it tiresome to watch the painful set up of the premise, so scriptwriters often rush through it. But it’s because the premise of Some Like It Hot is so well established and so naturally established that we never question it or feel its too silly. Some Like it Hot sells its bit harder than almost any other film; it spends over twenty minutes setting up a silly idea. And that’s why it works.

Now in gaming, we often want to cut to the chase, too. We don’t have the luxury for long prologues of person A being thrown into prison with person B, overcoming their differences then escaping together with the help of person C because A, B and C are all here at the table now, so that stuff gets written into the backstory – if it gets written at all. The problem is we often skimp so much on set up we never sell the bit. It starts at the mouth of the dungeon. But if you never establish why the characters have to go into the dungeon, the question instantly arises of why don’t they just go home? Be a blacksmith. Raise some kids. Yes, players should help provide the answer, but the point is you have to think about it. And the bigger the risk – and dungeon delving is a huge risk – the more you should work on selling it. All that work is how you get away with point 2:

2. You Are What You Wear

I sat next to a guy at the theatre once who didn’t understand that if an actor goes off stage and comes back wearing a different hat, he’s a different character. I fear for a generation becoming that guy, where we lose the language of theatre. Where people can’t understand why Elmer Fudd thinks Bugs Bunny is a whole new person when he’s dressed in a wig and bustier. It’s not just a joke, it’s part of the language of theatre, and the fun of pantomime. Now you may think that it’s not so silly to believe that Sugar wouldn’t recognise “Josephine” as “Shell Oil” (but surely she would recognize his terrible fourth-wall-breaking Cary Grant impression) the point is more how easy it is for these identities to be assumed. The scene where Joe steals the hat and the beach chair and suddenly becomes a billionaire – exactly what Sugar is looking for – is pure wonderful pantomime. He appears – as they say in the comic the Maxx – as whatever you dress him as. You might also notice that Marilyn dresses differently to ever other girl in the band, and that the villain is identified by his spats. This isn’t just the importance of costume, this is the spirit of pantomime where costume is larger than life and works in a different level of reality. It’s not about similitude or what would actually happen, it’s about costume rewriting truth.

What’s that got to do with RPGs? So much. Unless you’re trying to recreate something super realistic and gritty like Breaking Bad, you’re probably doing a tale of some amount of picaresque adventure where people already talk in symbols, where your powers, weapons and armour define a large amount about you. The guy in the robes is the wizard, right? Which means if your fighter puts on robes he will be mistaken for a wizard. If they dress as palace guards they will be mistaken for palace guards. Put on some boots and talk fancy to the king and you can create the Marquis De Carabas, lure some stormtroopers around a corner and come out wearing their uniforms. This doesn’t mean make the Disguise skill useless or let the players get away with impersonating everyone. It means almost any story is improved by the free-flowing fluid reality created by the essential truth that in fiction, you are what you dress as.

3. Always Include A Musical Number

One of the thing that makes classic movies classic is their wide appeal. As mentioned in point one, most movies today are very narrowly designed to fit a very predefined model. A movie about band members in drag wouldn’t have a backstory of a violent criminal massacre, and it certainly wouldn’t stop twice for music numbers. Music numbers do feel silly to lots of people, because they’ve forgotten the language of theatre and are too busy wondering how everyone knows the words or steps. Some Like It Hot gets around this by being about musicians and letting Marilyn do all the singing but they’re still musical numbers, it’s just that the movie sells them (see point one). It’s still an excuse to stop the plot and the script entirely in its tracks and sing. Your gaming reality will benefit from existing in a universe significantly theatrical where this can and does happen.

Oh I know what you’re going to say. Your players are shy and tuneless and the GM isn’t sitting by a piano striking up their favourite ballads. Thing is, though, almost all of us are singers. We sing in the shower and in the car. And we feel emotionally engaged when we sing. I bet if you listen to a few of your games, you’ll here people drop in a few songs now and then, as a kind of in joke. Someone might say Hello in character and another person might respond with “from the other side” or “is it me you’re looking for?”. The point is, don’t think of these as asides that distract but build them in deliberately as moments which engage character and player alike. Remember that moment in Almost Famous where the band bonds through spontaneous singing? Your players will too. Sell it hard by putting the adventure climax on stage and having most of the party take a level in bard, or just do an off hand little dance number apropros of nothing, but find a way, now and then, to sing and dance. It will make a game memory that will last the ages.

4. The Players Choose Where the Plot Goes

Some Like It Hot commits a screen-writing heresy. Half way through it goes from being about one thing to being about something else. In fact, it does that twice. It starts as a buddy film about speakeasies and gangsters, turns into an innuendo-fueled farce about cross-dressing on a train and then turns into a romantic comedy of presumed identity. And the person who puts the film in those places is Joe. He doesn’t fall into those situations, he moves into them decisively. Joe drives the plot so hard he jumps the genre track. (And we don’t mind because, since it’s Joe’s decision to do so, the bit has been sold). Again, few movies would be so bold these days to do so many different things, and RPGs are often so keen to invoke their genre that they wouldn’t dare either.

Now, it’s a crappy thing to do when everyone sits down to play a game of Call of Cthulhu to decide that you’re in a Three Stooges movie and not being scared of the monsters, or to turn your light-hearted musical comedy into a gorefest of critical hits. But if we assume we’re all adults who have a good pre-game awareness of where we vaguely might go and a grown-up sensibility of what’s too far, then we should be keen to let our shared creative experiences go where it leads. If the players want to jump the rails and it sounds like fun, go there. They’ll be so grateful to have their in-character desires made central to events they won’t mind if things get a bit bumpy. And if you statted out the mobsters and feel cheated, that’s what the last act is for. In the middle of the romantic comedy, bring back the original gangster plot, or if your characters decide mid-dungeon to try to play Cyrano to a kobold and a goblin in love, then you can still have the umber hulk show up to crash the wedding. But for God’s sake, don’t railroad them away from that Cyrano story if they want it; not only will they feel chagrined, you’ll have lost a story nobody else could have ever created, and will never exist again.

5. Love Is All You Need

Some Like It Hot is a classic because it’s full of variety and different genres, because it sells its bit hard, because it’s got a dynamite fast-paced script that never lets up, but also because it has the kind of feel-good ending and heart-warming message that resonates and keeps us warm inside. In this case it’s Amor Vincit Omnia – love conquers all – and although it sounds cheesy it’s snuck in so cleverly and so right at the last minute that you get all the hit of sentimentality without any of the mawkishness. It’s not just the romance of Shell trying to seduce Sugar with an ridiculously elaborate stunt, although that is one of those things that screams creepy and manipulative and mean until yoiu add both that touch of theatrical unreality which makes impersonation generally okay (see point 2) and the sentimentality of romance. There’s an even deeper romantic moment to the film at the very end, and it’s a one-two punch of incredible, almost way too unbelievable romance, but everything else has been sold so hard we don’t care, and because we want to believe it. It’s when Joe comes clean about his deception, and Sugar doesn’t care, and then when Gerry does the same to Osgood. It’s not just a great final line that Osgood is so in love gender doesn’t matter, it’s also a joyous swing to the bleachers of just maybe how powerful love can be. And this is the last reason we adore this movie so much. It makes us believe in love.

And yet when do we include love in our games? In his amazing Nightmares of Mine, Ken Hite talks about the various big emotions of fiction and why fear is the easiest and most satisfying to evoke at the RPG table. I generally agree but I think he’s too dismissive of love. As Some Like It Hot shows, the trick with love is to use it very very sparingly, to slip it in at the last moment when we’re distracted by the foot-chase onto the speedboat rescue – but to no less powerful an effect. Fear takes time; love is instantaneous. Again, you can sell it, by putting in characters and plots and scenes that revolve around meetings and romances and seductions but you can also just throw in a few random mentions of how the princess is good looking and how your rogue has a thing for her, and then suddenly hit the trigger one second before you get frozen in carbonite and leave everyone reeling from the blow. Remember, we play these games to feel things, and the glory of victory and the power of courage shouldn’t be the only things. When the dragon rises, stand with your party because you love them, it will make it count so much more.

And maybe sing a song while you do it, together. Back to back, face the world with one last number. That’s the very heart of glory and will leave everyone forever changed for it, and it will evoke so much emotion nobody will care about the silliness of dramatic convention – as long as it’s where the players want to be, and you sell it hard beforehand.

 

 

 

 

Fences at the Top, Ambulances at the Bottom

The title here comes from a story we tell in public health. You can probably guess the shape of it, but it has a bigger backstory.

Imagine there’s a cliff. A dangerous one, and people fall off all the time. So the bottom becomes known as a dangerous place where accidents happen. Ambulances rush their all the time. In fact, they build a new hospital right near the bottom so the ambulances can get their faster. Then they build a special part of that hospital just for dealing with cliff fall injuries. Pretty soon it becomes the best place on the earth to have cliff-injury treating experience. People come from around the world to treat injuries there. They establish a school next to the hospital, which quickly becomes the leading school in the world on cliff-fall injuries. New scientific advances on treating cliff-fall injuries are made every day in this powerhouse of discovery. So many jobs are provided by the school and the hospital that a whole town develops around the site. People’s lives are rooted into this amazing world of cliff-fall injury treatment. The head of the new Cliff-Fall Institute declares that through their work, someday soon someone will fall off a cliff and be guaranteed a full return to health. Not just because of the cures but because of the mattress technology they’ve built and the rock-softening science. Giants of industry fund world-wide empires on new mattress technology and rock softeners.

And nobody ever builds a five dollar fence.

There’s two separate lessons in this story. The first is that most things in health have at least two ways of looking at them, and sometimes we completely forget one of them. The second is that once you build a system to focus on one of them, the other solution is easier and easier to forget, because systems are inherently self-sustaining. Systems want to keep existing, and they fight hard against being shut down. The bigger your ambulance town the less anyone even wants to think about fences. The health industry is full of money and this effect can be extremely powerful. There are issues with law as well, because it can be harder for laws to prevent things in a way that doesn’t make things worse in other ways.

But it’s an important metaphor for lots of other things as well, and thus it should be more widely known. It’s certainly something important in game design. Because all the time we see people building more and more ambulances instead of a fence.

A classic example is D&D stat generation. Original D&D had people rolling 3d6 in order. The problem was that meant the stats were often too low and unappealingly so. Ambulances came by the dozens: roll 4d6 take the highest. Roll 5d6 take the highest. Assign them where you want them. Other complex formulas. It took a long time before an actual fence was built with things like point buy, or just starting stats off at a higher point. Or, the WFRP solution where low stats don’t actually matter. Good fences mean you don’t have to send hundreds of ambulances.

To be fair, the ambulance gives more choice in some situations; the idea being to ameliorate for those that don’t like it without taking it away from those that do. Sometimes though, one interferes with the other. And the classic example there is point-buy balance.

Theoretically, point-buy and it’s friend class-balance exist to be the ambulance solution to the problem of unbalanced characters. We assume that you’re going to spend your points to be both different from the other characters but we also assume you’re going to choose the most powerful things you see, and we want most of those choices to not cause one player to overrule the others. So game designers develop enormous ambulance skills to balance every choice. We do this so much it is intuitive.  We naturally build in negative consequences to every good thing so every choice comes with consequences, and deliberately build in limitations into characteristics to protect niches. And there’s nothing wrong with this, in theory. Ambulances can be a good way to solve this.

What’s interesting is when we bring in the fence solution, like say in the Cortex Marvel RPG where, on the whole, everyone basically has the same stats but with different flavours to them. Or the D&D 4e solution where everyone was basically a spell-caster so there was no need to balance once-per-day abilities with all-the-time abilities. But people complained because it felt too samey, and it also took away a lot of the fun of min-maxing (more on that later).

A far worse solution though is the idea that you can have it both ways. White Wolf had the infamous Rule Zero, which at heart was a good idea: RPGs are poor tools to deal with the rampant imagination of storybuilders so favour a better game experience over a fundamentalist reading of the rules (a good rule of thumb for ALL games). The problem is that people took this to mean that the fence to stop min-maxing was “don’t play with jerks who want to take your fun away” – which again, is a fine fence. But then White Wolf still went ahead and tried to point-buy balance everything. Why the ambulances? There’s a similar thing in Stolze’s Godlike rules, where he points out that his build-your-powers section is not particularly restrictive and it is trivially easy to build a massively powerful ability at the same cost of a much lesser-powered one. The fence offered is a kind of “well, who cares?” shrug. Which left me wondering: then why all the ambulances?

The answer that the game of building things with limited resources is fun in and of itself even if you never do an atom of roleplaying is necessary and important but not sufficient. I often deliberately buy rules-heavy games for this purpose knowing I will only use them for chargen the same way people play Minecraft, just to see what I can build. But it’s an insufficient answer because I don’t think we’re aware of it enough. The cosmic shrug of “be better players so you don’t abuse it” is lazy, insulting and terrible and a general failure of understanding what game design is for, and that it’s not being a bad player to take obvious advantages of the system. But on the other hand, experience shows that at certain levels of complexity, no amount of ambulance solutions can stop some amount of abuse. And playing only with people you trust is always a good idea – but you should still expect the system to not lead you astray.

To be clear, I’m not saying I can solve this problem. Nor is the fence always better than the ambulance (and you can reframe things so you can swap them around, of course.) What I am saying is discussing these problems becomes a lot easier when you have the fence and ambulance metaphor to work with. And there are clear examples of this thinking making things better. There was often a problem where players would take disadvantages and then they would never come up in games. The fence solution there was “play with people who ROLE-play, not roll-play!”, but the ambulance solution was to give people XP when their flaws came up, and even give them the power to trigger them themselves. A fence approach might also just decide that how players portray their character shouldn’t really connect to the game mechanics at all. Wiring them in entirely is good, wiring them out entirely is bad, trying to wire them in and then ambulance out the problems that happen with traditional mechanics is where the problem appears. That’s when you step back and go, well, the fence is still there as an option. Instead of just copying GURPS’ ads and disads all over again, with all their problems.

To move to board games, there’s a classic fence/ambulance situation going on there. Conventional wisdom is that cooperative games suffer from the “alpha game” problem. This is the situation where if the game has full open information, certain types of players are able to see the best moves everyone should take to maximize the odds of success, and watching other players fail to make those moves is frustrating, but making every move for everyone else is not much fun either. The ambulance solution here has been to create a rash of cooperative games with hidden information, where there are traitors or hidden agendas or more and more ways not to be able to access everything so nobody can truly be sure what is the best move for everyone. Some amazing games have come about trying to “fix” this problem, but in the process a lot of people have declared that the ambulance is the only solution, and the problem must be fixed. When in fact the fence solution, “don’t play with alpha players” is perfectly acceptable as well, as long as you don’t think every game on earth should be fun for every person on earth.

And as you can see, it can apply to what games you play as well. Somebody recently said recently that Secret Hitler is a great game for people who hate Werewolf, but what they meant was it fixes some of the smaller problems of Werewolf (like the player knock-out), but is still a “deceit” game of lying and deduction. I don’t like those kinds of games and I never will, and god help us if anyone ever tries to make a Werewolf that appeals to me it either won’t work, or it’ll be so far from being a deceit game that it won’t be fun for Werewolf fans. The fence and the ambulance metaphor can help us understand our own tastes. No amount of ambulances can make deceit games fun for me and designers shouldn’t really try and I shouldn’t go around playing them, it’s never really going to work. Yes, we can get too hung up on categories and being prejudiced. But we can also end up damning ourselves to no fun if we throw ourselves off cliffs hoping the ambulances will help. Sometimes it is better to hammer in the fence and go “don’t go beyond here if this isn’t your thing”. Let your freak flag fly by being proud of what you don’t like, and leaving it for others (without hating on it) – and be aware that not everyone wants to join your thing too. That’s the way we all get to have fun: by realizing we don’t all like the same things.

 

Tales of the Rusty Crown

I asked my players to each provide a fact about their home base in my new Shadows of the Demon Lord campaign. A few extra facts also came from the PC playing the bartender. As you can see, like so much of roleplaying, we threw ideas into a pot and it came out insanely awesome. If you’re running Tales of the Demon Lord, feel free to use the write-up for your campaign as well.

The Rusty Crown is a tavern in Grievings. It sits inside an old watchtower, along the banks of the Stream of Tears. It was abandoned of any official use by the militia long before any remembers. It was then a smuggler’s den and flop house, which is probably when they smashed in the interior walls between the tower and the guards’ quarters next door. Sometime after that, a clever and industrious Griever came up with the idea of making it a tavern. He turned the long guards’ sleeping quarters into a long-tabled eating area and common room, and the narrow circular tower into the kitchens, with staff accommodation above. The half-remains of a parapet buts out over the stream, allowing drunken customers to relieve themselves directly into the waters below, which adds to the sense of comfort and ease the Crown is known for.

Currently the manager of the Crown is Vat, the strange old quadrupedal many-tubed clockwork who is usually behind the bar, with Jess the hafling working in the kitchens and doing cleaning (and turning Vat’s key). Vat pays rent to some owner in Coins, who doesn’t care what the business does as long as he gets the rent. The Crown serves a simple lunch and dinner and provides drinks from noon till midnight. It’s not fancy, but Vat travels around to nearby towns to get good quality brews and wines which raise it above your usual Grievings waterhole. It’s never busy but seldom empty, and draws clientele from different walks of life, since it’s not far from Smoke and Redemption. Delia and her Treasure Hunter friends drink there from time to time, and so does Father Gregory, a scholar of the New God. The last time Charlie drank there, the local drunk Braidon took a swing at him. It’s never dull in the Rusty Crown. Indeed, sometimes even Lady Katandramus herself stops by, as part of her recent campaign to feed the starving and homeless in Grievings (on the rise since the recent drought and Halfling refugee arrivals). As a cleaner oasis in a dirty neighbourhood it makes a good base of operations for some of her endeavours although talk in the bar is that there is more to it. Some say the eponymous crown of the tavern once belonged to the King of Crossings, and Lady Katandramus wants to find it!

The Rusty Crown is certainly riddled with secrets from its smuggler days and ancient architecture. Once while cleaning the chimney in the kitchen, Jess uncovered what could be some kind of hidey hole or tunnel, although she’s never explored it. Vat has also never gone down the trapdoor behind the bar that he believes leads to the river, because he just can’t fit down it since he’s a giant beer barrel on legs.

Those are just two of the strange things. The old filigreed pendulum clock in the corner was a gift from some wealthy passer-by before Vat’s time and it cannot seem to tell time and neither can any other clock in the building – but it always chimes ten minutes before a delivery from the ale cart. There’s a corner in the common room where the wood grain doesn’t match and no matter how filthy it gets, is always spotlessly clean in the morning and smells of lilacs – but it gives the drunks sleeping nearby terrifying nightmares. The tarnished copper spittoon on the bar is nicknamed the Rusty Crown as well, and famously ends up on the head of any fool who starts a fight and fails to finish it, brimming with the donations of those annoyed by the disturbance. Maybe it’s a magical crown after all, of some long lost king, or it’s some stand-in for a crown that once stood there. You never known in a place as strange and likely fey-touched as the Rusty Crown. It’s like the Reach – old as dirt and criss-crossed with so many trails and tales even the lies are probably true. Go back far enough and maybe everything’s true.

 

Five Things Gamers Can Learn From The Force Awakens

Here we go with another in the ever-growing series that you love to click on but offer no comment towards. The Force Awakens was pretty great even with a few hiccups, but the world is our sourcebook so once again, what can we learn about good storygaming from this cultural monolith? Spoilers follow but if you’re seeing it for the fifth time, slow down and see if you notice that:

  1. Return To The Well, Because It Never Runs Dry

“Immature writers imitate, mature writers steal” said the great TS Eliot and he was damn right. Don’t get me wrong, things can become hackneyed and tiresome. Ideas can wear out their welcome. But shapes and archetypes last forever, and we humans despite craving novelty crave familiarity all the more. And this applies to all sorts of things, but perhaps nothing more so than character archetypes and plot shapes. We don’t mind that the First Order is almost exactly like the Empire because we want there to be a great force of evil. We don’t mind that the embattled Rebel- I mean Resistance has one shot to take out a devastating weapon because we need last minute stories of triumph against terrible odds and huge cathartic explosions upon victory. A lot of storytelling is simply moving shadow-puppets around into familiar configurations, then giving them new names and hats so it feels different. This is especially important in storygaming where you need to grab people through artifice and pull them into a shared improvisation – on a chaotic journey, the more signposts the better. It’s okay to go back to the well. You just need to know that that’s not the real story because:

2. Character Is King

The Force Awakens stands tall because it stands on the soldiers of giants, and I don’t mean those that came before. I mean Rey and Finn, and to a lesser extent BB-8 and Poe. From almost the first moment we are caught up in their story: Finn’s horrified realization, Rey’s lonely vigil, and BB8 exists to get Finn and Rey together and give them something to do together so they stay in frame. If the movie has a weak spot, it is when characters of the past come looming in so much they steal the spotlight. They’re well written and performed but they can’t help but feeling secondary because we start and end with Rey and Finn. If there’s one thing the prequels failed at and the original films and TFA got right is to keep things personal. It doesn’t matter how cool you think your backstory is about empires and resistances and ancient magic, character is king. Your PCs are what the game is about, where the connection happens. That doesn’t mean you can’t build epic universes and fantastic plots if you want, but it means you do those things to showcase the PCs. It’s even right there in the titles: The New Hope and the Awakening are CHARACTERS. Specific people. Put them front and centre, every time.

3. Orphans Are Good Because They Create Proxy Families

For a while, there was a gut reaction away from the orphan hero in roleplaying. Murder hobos with zero connections to anyone have been de rigeur in many campaigns as a way to stop the GM messing with you (ie making the story about you), and so people went the other way full-throttle: no more orphans! But the risk of tying people too much into their life-before-adventure is they have too many reasons NOT to go adventuring. What’s more, if they have a vacuum in their life, story will naturally fill it and the biggest sucking hole is the one for friends and family. It can be hard as hell to get the PCs to hang out with each other sometimes, so why not make it so they are desperate to do so because they are starved for support? Rey and Finn have nobody else in the galaxy to turn to, which is why they bond so quickly and firmly with each other. Finn needs the Resistance because he has left everything he’s ever known behind. Rey needs Han’s job offer because she’s been abandoned. The truth is, almost all groups in stories are proxy families for those without them. Use this, roll up orphans. They can still HAVE families, just not on-stage until they need to cause trouble.

4. Fear is the Spur

In the ancestor of these pieces, I explained how Star Wars works because of its enormously strong narrative “push”, and the best way to push is with a terrifyingly large stick. New Hope and Force Awakens share this strongly: everyone is always running at top speed, away from something very very bad. BB8’s information makes Finn, Rey and it the target of everyone in the First Order, and the Resistance, and even Han’s side plot is about two people trying to kill him while a giant squid does the same. This makes characters act on instinct, glomming onto that proxy family and new identities as soon as they are offered, leaving old ties behind and taking enormous risks – because looking back or standing still is much, much worse. And fear is there before the story even starts: Rey is desperatelyt fighting off starvation, Finn is at risk the moment he refuses to shoot. Poe is a wanted criminal in his backstory. And they’re all running to Leia, who is hunting for Luke. Their fear makes them funnel into the plot because the plot is somewhere safer than standing still. And the plot finds them too: they can’t sit in Moz’ bar for too long because everyone reacts when they walk in. That helps you make sure your characters are always in the spotlight, narratively and in exegesis.

5. Split The Party

The catchcry of all roleplaying is “Don’t Split The Party” and the people saying otherwise have never really addressed WHY we don’t split the party – it’s because gaming is participatory and nobody likes waiting too long for their turn, no matter how exciting it is to watch others. But once you recognize that as the key downside to splitting the party, you can see that it is also its power, and you should use that anticipation to your benefit. See, it works for characters and audiences alike too – and nothing is better than having your audience wanting what your characters do. Once the proxy family is formed, there is nothing more sacred – we the audience desperately want them to stay on camera together so when Rey and Finn are separated our narrative needs ache as hard as our empathy for the personas. Players keen to roll their dice have the same ache, so tie it into a plot point. Let them build their proxy family, let them be terrified of everything coming at them, let them reach out for the other party members for the stats they need to survive – then YANK THAT AWAY. Hide the fate of one PC entirely for a scene or two. Let everyone rolling dice want the missing player to roll dice too so they can find out what happened to them. That way they’ll speed up their dice rolling, working as hard as they can to force the spotlight back onto the person they ache to see. And that person knows all of that is waiting for them, so they’ll mind less about waiting. And armed with the knowledge help is on its way, they can escape their restraints and be ready for the rescue. Remember, metagaming is your friend.

Again, this is all about making characters king. For roleplaying, you want the players to not just care about their own characters, as that’s usually given. What you want is for them to be audience too and build a sense of love for the other characters, and for the proxy family of the party together. By focusing on characters, stripping them of outside families and making everything else against them, you will build that proxy family…and then you can take it away from them and make them care harder than they ever have about anything. And once you do that, it doesn’t matter how familiar things look when they come from the old well. We want it simple and familiar because we’re not here for that. We’re here for the family. That’s what makes great roleplaying – and great space opera epics. Go. Build it. And may the Force be with you.

 

Estalia Preview #5: The Streets of Bilbali

We tried very hard to get the book out before the end of the year, but the end of the year is of course when Real Life(TM) does its most wicked work on our creative time. As an apology, we give you three locations you might wander into in the streets of Bilbali, three locations where adventures come thick and fast.

Playa Grande

Playa Grande (“the big beach” in Estalian) is the largest beach in the city, and throughout the summer is full of people enjoying the sun, the sand and of late, even the waters of the blue Suenos.  The shore is also crowded with pavilions and stalls for those who tire of the sun, but few do: rich and poor, local and tourist alike enjoy taking to the water wearing clothes so indecent they would shock Countess Emmanuelle.  The fashion standards of this popular new pastime have led to the beach gaining another purpose, too.  It being almost impossible to secrete even the smallest dagger in a bathing costume, a state of political détente can exist on the Playa.  In a city where politics is soaked in blood, this provides a vital safe ground for discussions, and more politics is discussed on any given sunny day on the Playa than in a month at the palace, all under the veil of joyous waterside frolics.  Even the Queen herself has been known to come down to the water’s edge in her sedan chair, although it remains as yet unclear whether she enjoys the activity or simply needs the political vantage point.

The only people who do not swim are the staunch clerics of Myrmidia.  With Mother Temple decrying any form of indecency, the priests take a dim view of the bathing fad.  As yet Aquila Hembre lacks sufficient power to outlaw the practice, but his sermons are becoming increasingly critical of the activity, and it would only take a few public incidents of immorality to transform his rhetoric into proclamation.  In the meantime, the fortunes of many are made and lost on the golden sand, and the common epithet of those who have been soundly out-manoeuvred there is that they hate the Playa, not the game.

 

Bilbali Books

Bilbali is like unto a steamtank of salesmanship but it deals so primarily in its staples of wine, women, jewels and sucre that the little things are often forgotten.  Manuscripts, for example, are not the common trade of the Bilbalin streets.  Yet sometimes they can be the most valuable things of all.

Those who would seek such knowledge should come to Bilbali Books, but they must bring great wit and couraghe, for the shop is not designed to be friendly.  Their collections of books is wide-ranging but totally unorganized, and sorting through the roof-high piles and twisted shelves is a skill of both physical and mental dexterity.  What’s more, the proprietor Don Bernando Negres, is a wild-eyed lunatic, known to accuse his customers of being daemons sent to kill him.  More than once he has leapt unannounced upon people entering his store, attempting to put them in a sack to send back to Chaos Wastes.  His assistant is no better: the gigantic hairy fool with a mountain-man’s beard does little besides chuckle to himself and claim to be part troll – and smells bad enough for it to be true.  Buying books there is always an adventure, but if it is treasure maps or ancient diaries that are sought, there is simply no equal, and the “quirky” staff do help keep other treasure-hunters away.

El Lustriador

Caza Blanca means “the white hunt”.  To a sailor, this means whaling, searching for the white plume that indicates one of the great mammals has surfaced.  In the underworld of Bilbali, the white hunt is a slang term for the assassination of royalty, and by extension, the political machinations that are built on and around the practice.  As Queen Juana is the royal most targeted for assassination in Estalia, if not the entire Old World, the caza blanca is played constantly and ardently in her city.  The protégés do little to stop it, assuming they could – all they can do is round up the usual suspects of ne’er-do-wells, a group to which any assassin would never belong. So the deaths continue, and Ricardo Arnaz, the proprietor of El Lustriador, will be damned if he isn’t going to make money from it.

On the surface, El Lustriador appears to be a popular taverna with a slightly seedy reputation; wealthy enough to pay off the protégés so it can provide gambling and whores and contraband whisky to those willing to pay the prices.  The real business takes place upstairs, where the rich and powerful of the city don’t simply plan assassinations, but bet heavily on their outcomes.  Odds are given not just on whether the target lives or dies come the morning, but also how far the assassin gets within the palace, how he gains entry, the method chosen for the killing, and how, if ever, he is eventually stopped.  It is considered cheating to arrange your own assassination, but paying others to foil one you bet against is perfectly legal by the group’s standards.

When politics fails to provide such games to wager upon, the gamblers rely on Ricardo to provide ne’er-do-wells and treasure-hunters with grand and elusive goals to pursue.  The group particularly enjoy giving tasks to travelling adventurers, for such people are wildly unpredictable and touched by some strange hand of Fate, making the gambling extremely exciting.