Saturday, August 21, 2010

How much are your characters like you?

In the next couple of posts, I'm going to explore a couple of gaming ideas and questions that have been rolling around in my head. The questions in these posts are intended to help me go back to my GMing role at a later date with more enjoyment and continuing fun.

As I mentioned in my last post, my group started a new campaign just after I finished my Eberron campaign. The new system and world are Cyberpunk 2020. This is a gritty, nihilistic future where everyone is by my standards morally questionable, even the "good" guys if there are any. We were given character class choices across a wide range of options. To me there was no real choice, I had to play the fixer. A fast talking, slick, con artist who buys and sells for profit. All the other options would have started me down a path of gear inflation (bigger and better vehicles, medical supplies, or guns). I just couldn't care less about that stuff.

There is a player in my group, I'll call him Alfonse, who really gets into the stuff his character has. He describes his sniper rifle with a near mystical tone, amplifying his voice as he reaches the crescendo where he finally describes the 6d10 damage his .50 caliber slugs will do. Then he mimics the act of shooting and makes a whooshing sound mixed with harsh consonants. The noise and his gesticulations fall somewhere between those expected in ejaculation and those of gunshot recoil. He then laughs cathartically and pours over the book again to find add-ons and augmentations to said sniper rifle so that his character can shoot farther, more accurately, more powerfully, around corners, in the dark, upside down, underwater, through walls, without leaving a trace, or what ever. He is by profession a silicon valley engineer. Alfonse, narrates his latest computer or phone acquisition with the same spiritual rapture as that sniper rifle.

The parallels that I experience between his character and his person are not direct moral comparisons or comparisons of purpose. The parallels are more like comparisons of perception and world interpretation. That is, he continues to perceive the world through the same lenses. In his case, the quality and strength of gadgetry is a major source of excitement in both his pretend game world and in his real life. I could make less obvious connections between his real life frustrations with "fairness" and his in game perceptions of which NPCs are and are not "jerks" but this comparison would be less clear.

Now, in comparison, I am by nature, training, and profession interpersonally oriented. I focus on the quality and strength of interpersonal relationships. In games this leads me to being primarily interested in negotiation or interactions with PCs and NPCs. I am less oriented toward objects, technology, magic items etc. Even at the table, I pay a lot of attention (maybe too much) to the interactions between the players, their motivations and interests. This blogpost is a case in point.

I've had this conversation with a gamer friend and he argues for the opposite point. To him, his characters bear little reflection of himself. He points to their in-world actions, their in-world morality, roles, and professions. Though he and I consider the same characters and compare them to him, I again come back to the same thesis when I consider his characters. Though the characters differ from him in action and morality, their primary mode of interaction, status seeking, and purpose bears striking similarity to his own interpersonal style in real life. He, like his characters, is quick thinking, takes an interpersonal leadership role, and has the capacity to outwit just about anyone if verbally sparring.

This leads me to my main thesis. Though roleplaying games are fantasy worlds created in part for the relief of escapism, what we escape is the world we are in. We do not escape ourselves. Therefore, we are likely to enact (if not create) characters that continue to perceive the imaginary world in ways similar to the ways that we perceive our real world. In a sense, we will also recreate through our characters the same interpersonal experiences and relationships that we have as people. This may not be as clear in the interaction and relationship with the BBEG. How many of us, after all, work against an opponent or foe on a daily basis that we consider to be irredeemably evil? These tendencies will however be seen much more clearly in the character's relationship to PCs, NPCs, items, and to the player's general responses to the content of the game. Does the player ask for more detail about the magic ring on the finger of the mage or do you wonder more about why the mage is there and what he was trying to do?

If you accept this thesis, it leads to a major question about character creation. When creating a character should you acknowledge this limitation or try to use game mechanics to circumvent it? For example, if Alfonse, the gadget oriented player described above, wants to play a slick talking con artist, should he be allowed to? If allowed, what limitations do you place on or game mechanics do you use to supplement his lack of actual negotiation skill. At the table he might say to an adversary, "If you don't help us we'll hurt you financially" which lacks the finesse of a more positively oriented negotiation such as "If you help us we'll help you" or even a more veiled threat, "We need your help and you need us." If you point out to Alfonse that his negotiation is inelegant, he might say, "That's my limitation as a player, but the character phrases it better, what do you want me to roll?" Do you give him a penalty on the roll? Re-narrate his negotiation to coincide more closely with your perception of a skilled roll result?

Either way you compromise something. If you allow the character to be limited by the player's skill then you shoe horn the player into always playing a character that bears some interpersonal similarity to the player. If you don't then you move from roleplaying toward roll playing.

So, here is where I get on my soap box. I think that roleplaying games, like other forms of play, are a form of practice. The answer for the question of how to respond mechanically to the player's negotiation should be related not as much to some theoretical ideal for a GM or group. The answer to the mechanic used for negotiations should coincide with what the player is practicing while playing the game. So, when Alfonse creates the slick negotiator character, maybe the GM and the player have a conversation about the character to figure out what Alfonse the player is playing with in character creation.

GM: Alfonse, are you playing this character because you want to improve your negotiation skills or because you want to roll dice and make negotiations work?
[Note that this comment does not state the GM's opinion that Alfonse is poor at negotiation. The phrasing above could just as easily be used with a player that is already skilled at negotiation but wants to improve that skill further.]
Alfonse: I really want to roll dice and make it work.
GM: Okay, so let's imagine we're at the table, rpging an interaction, and your dice roll high but your words seem less skilled to me. Do you want me to ignore that disparity and just make the dice work miraculously, re-narrate your words to something that seems more consonant to me with the die roll, or something else.
Alfonse: What about modifying the die roll by the skill of my words?
GM: Well, that could work but it means that my opinion could really nerf a good roll. Would you want that?
Alfonse: Um, not really. But I don't much like the idea that you might re-narrate either.
GM: So, let's just go with the roll as is?
Alfonse: Yeah, that'll work.

In this imaginary dialogue, Alfonse's play practice is similar to what Alfonse enjoys as a person; maximizing numbers, powers, toys, and tools. His orientation to the play is depicted in the discussion of a mechanic for the character's skill. The aspect that he is interested in is the capacity of the number on his sheet, earned by effort and dedicated consciously to that purpose, to change the game world.

The challenge for gaming groups is that GMs often chose to be GMs because they want to play with story, narrative, moral, or interactive elements. The GM may be dissatisfied with participating in someone else's number play (often referred to derogatorily as min-maxing) and prefer a more so called "pure" form of role playing. Now, if that difference is true in your group, as it is in mine, then next question becomes whether or not the GM needs to gain the participation of the other players to play with story elements above, Phrased another way, can the GM can play with one thing (e.g., story and morality) and the player another (numbers and gadgets). I don't have any idea about the answer to that yet. I'm sure that I've been GMing so far as if the answer is "no" leading me to frustration. In the next post, I'm going to consider that question further.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Campaign Conclusion


If you haven't read it, it will be helpful to read the cast of characters for this final battle.

The Final Battle seemed to go well. Everything seemed to happen pretty fast. The PCs buffed while Screw got the crowd riled up with a little political speech and announcing the execution of the rogue PC's mother. That roleplaying hook didn't seem to have much impact, the rogue simply said, "Don't same her, kill the Lord of the Blades." Screw's speech ended with by announcing the arrival of the Lord of the Blades to conduct the execution. The Lord of the Blades emerged onto the dais and killed the rogue's mother while the PCs took another round to buff themselves. The PCs entered the scene by using Dimension Door to jump directly to the top of the dais. They had been told that the Lord of the Blades and screw were up there. They dimension doored right on top of the bad guys. What I thought was going to be a wide open fight with a lot of flying and long distance movement, ended up being a toe-to toe slug fest.

The weather effects ended up being enjoyable and effective at frustrating the PCs a little. The background of the riot that broke out of the attendant warforged populace seemed to the PCs to be an interesting element but never really came to the forefront until the end of the battle.

Sequence of Events
One of the many buff spells that the mage and cleric cast on the PCs was Invisibilty Sphere. The PCs, used Dimension Door to bamf to the top of the dais sight unseen. Because they didn't know where they were going this led them to dimension door right on top of the Lord of the Blades, Screw, two level 8 Barbarian Warforged, and the 2 supercharged iron defenders that heel the Lord of the Blades. The mage was dimension doored on top of one of the iron defenders. I tried to use this an an excuse to put him out of harms way and also out of sight instead of within arms reach of the Lord of the Blades. I did this inelegantly by trying to make up an on the spot interpretation of the spell but he ended up using my words against me to confirm that he would like to be within 10 feet of the Lord of the Blades. I said, "Ok, I'm not going to argue over it". The bad guys used a Dispelling Screen (from the Spell Compendium) to protect them from the crowd of warforged they were addressing. So when the party dimension doored right on top of the bad guys, they split the party. Cleric, rogue, and mage (all invisible) were standing within reach of the Lord of the Blades on on the same side of the Dispelling Screen as the bad guys. That left the warforged fighter (not invisible) and the human ranger (invisible) on the opposite side of the dispelling screen.

The warforged fighter did a good job of calling out the Lord of the Blades and challenging him to fight for the control of the Lord of the Blades. Then the fighter did a funny thing. . . he backed up and moved further down the dais. . . away from the Lord of the Blades. He did this because the Dimension Door placed him right next to the Lord of the Blades but with the dispelling screen between them. I think he was trying to lure the Lord of the Blades through the dispelling screen. Well, that wasn't going to happen.

The Lord of the Blades in this world (Ranger 6-Blackguard 4-Spell warped) has a pretty good spot check. Despite the fact that so many in the party had Invisibility Sphere cast on them before using Ddoor, the Lord of the Blades, made the DC20 spot check to tell that there was something there in two of the squares next to him. Unfortunately, for the PCs, this was the rogue and the cleric. Since the Lord of the Blades had poison on each weapon, he divided the attacks between them. The 50% miss chance helped from invisibility helped them avoid the slaughter it could have been but both took one attack and required the fort saves v. poison. The rogue failed hers and took 4 points of strength damage. The cleric made his save.

The mage cast Resilient Sphere on Screw thinking that the spell's description, "Nothing can pass through the sphere, inside or out" meant that Screw could not use dimension door t get out of the sphere. This was a tough call for me. On the one hand, I know that he intended to isolate the artificer and reading the spell description it seems clear, "The sphere contains its subject for the spell’s duration." I took this decision slowly. I read the spell's descriptor (Evocation [Force]), the spell's level (4), and decided this is a level 4 version of the Wall of Force, and that it is not a dimensional anchor in addition to being a miniature wall of force. I let Screw out by using dimension door. The protest was minor signaling to me that this was at least a reasonable interpretation of the spell.

The Lord of the Blades did end up killing the mage who's invisibility had dropped upon casting the resilient sphere. The ranger, with a host of buff spells on himself and his bow, did 58 points of damage against the Lord of the Blades in a single attack! His arrows did not have their spells dispelled by the dispelling screen, and the criticals were not averted by the Lord of the Blades' 25% chance to negate a critical hit from being warforged. This caused ranger's invisibility to drop. The cleric stayed invisible through most of the battle. The rogue, with depleted strength use aid another and flanking to give the fighter +2 bonuses once the fighter had used a magic item for a quick dimension leap to the inside of the dispelling screen. From there it was pure slug fest. The fighter and the Lord of the Blades whacked away at one another. In the end, I think the only reason that the Lord of the Blades didn't kill the fighter was because of the 58 points of damage the ranger had done already. Plus, I think I forgot to use the Rending Gauntlets (Magic Item Compendium) when the Lord of the Blades hit with both weapons in one round. Considering that this was the only thing I think I missed in a very complex magic item filled combat, I'm feeling pretty good about myself. Anyway, the PCs killed the Lord of the Blades first. Once he was dead, Screw dimension doored again to the inside of the creation forge to try to take the schemas away then to live to fight another day.

The PCs went immediately into the forge. There they had to descend 80 feet to the bottom to get to the control panel from which Screw was trying to liberate the creation schemas. On their way down a well placed Vortex of Teeth (Spell Compendium) hit the fighter and the ranger. Then one of the funniest things I have ever seen in an RPG happened. The fighter jumped down 60 feet onto Screw. Screw avoided this aerial bombing with a reflex save and took 1/2 damage, the fighter took the full 6d6 damage and cracked the creation schema for the forge releasing a tremendous amount of arcane energy (5d4+5 to him, 4d4+4 to all within 5ft, 3d4+3 to all with 10 feet, etc.). This meant that Screw was pretty singed by the force bolts. The rest of the party retreated to the top of the forge to get above the vortex of teeth. Screw and the fighter battled more to get away from the sparks of force erupting from the control panel than with each other. However, once they were both far enough away, screw hit the fighter with an empowered lesser orb of acid dropping the fighter to exactly -9 hit points. I did not count that or plan for it, that was all luck. Reveling in his survival and thinking now only of escape, Screw prepared to use his wand of dimension door again. The ranger from 80 feet up fired a final volley of arrows. One of those arrows penetrated Screw's metallic skull and burst through his ball bearing cervical spine.

The rogue took the secondary damage from the poison just as the combat ended. She was reduced to 2 strength. The fighter was repaired and then the PCs emerged from the underground forge to find the warforged populace rioting had with those favorable to the PCs winning. The fighter was repaired but didn't really care for his new title, "Lord of the Blades". We finished up the campaign with a little negotiation with the siege army they didn't like that much either. The warforged fighter didn't like that he was supposed to surrender the the general or the fact that not surrendering re-moralized many of the warforged he had fought to rescue. Apparently, I just don't get what makes that player tick. The mage was resurrected the next day as the PCs were now 9th level.

In the end, everything seemed to go well. The PCs, definitely felt the situation was deadly and seemed to cheer each other for their successes. Every player had a pivotal role to play. Even the poisoned rogue used aid another to make the difference for the fighter's final round against the Lord of the Blades. What I can't figure out is why I kept feeling feeling that it was a little lack luster and every was just glad to be done with it. Poop!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Modular Preparation: In Action part 2

Almost 2 months between games. We played last at the beginning of June and then again at the end of July. In between sessions, the players interrogated a captive warforged by email and began exploring the acid trap (point B on the map described in this post). It took them two and a half hours to complete the acid trap at the beginning of the session. I'm definitely going to take note of the conversion from my primary play tester, my six year old, to my players. As I mentioned in my last post, my 6 year old got through the trap in 5 minutes. My players took 3.5 hours plus email time between sessions.

The PCs also took an extra day to heal the rogue of her disease and ability drain from the previous session.

After the acid trap, my players moved on to room D, one sorceror and 2 warforged titans. This room was a McGuffin. If you've read Ender's Game then you know that the enemy's gate is down. The players approached this room through a 5 ft. wide hallway and the exit to the room was 5 ft. wide as well. The Warforged Titans on the other hand are 15x15 ft. huge creatures. The easiest way through this combat was to focus combat attacks against the artificer while using superior mobility to get to the exit and avoid the titans entirely (win by getting to the enemy gate). Instead of taking this approach, the rogue snuck up once to scan the room and got away with it. She reported back to the party and tried to scout again but the second time she spotted and was spotted by the artificer. The artificer then set up one of the titans close enough to the door to be in striking range if the PCs approached the door way again. The rogue then stealthily approached the doorway a third time and got whacked pretty hard (titans do 2d8+9 damage) plus she drew the artificer into casting a lightning bolt down the hallway. While the PCs rearranged themselves in the hallway, the artificer cast a second lightning bolt into the hallway. Each bolt hit every one of the PCs to devastating effect. They didn't leave him alive long after that.

The PC warforged took up front position in the hallway and was trying to attack the titans but instead set himself up for taking full attacks and one charge. The charge was deadly because titans have the Powerful Charge feat (+3d6 damage on a successful attack). Slowly, the PCs ratcheted up the warforge's AC with buff spells from the cleric and combat expertise. Meanwhile, the wizard kept casting fireballs from the back ranks. The PCs defeated the titans eventually but had spent themselves through most of their magical resources. They took a day to rest after this combat which could have just been a passing bit of scenery.

The next encounter after the warforged was originally encounter F, a skull watch spell from the Spell Compendium. When the enemy warforged rogue escaped, last session, he notified the defenders of the tunnels that the PCs were approaching from that direction. So, the warforged necromancer ambush at point E switched to point F. In the tunnel, the PCs were walking by piles of dead bodies at random intervals along tunnel path. The rogue began doing her job, searching every pile. I had fun making up descriptions of the piles to the macabre enjoyment of all. I was just about the push the GM-fast-forward button to get the to pile where the rogue would find the ambush. Unfortunately, the other players began telling her to stop searching every pile. Her next comment was hilarious, "But don't you know that the first pile I don't search will be the one with undead in it?" It wasn't but it felt like it to the PCs because I did fast forward then. They walked along the tunnel ignoring the piles of bodies. I had them show me their marching order and roll spot checks. The only one who spotted the first pile with undead in it was the cleric, in the middle of the line up. He saw the eyes of the zombie ogre on top of the pile move to track him. But then, to my shock, he decided to keep walking! He didn't alert the party of the zombie until the next turn which put them right inside the jaws of the ambush. The necromancer shouted "Now!" and we rolled initiative.

Long story short, the necromancer, blinded two members of the party, they escaped from the ambush, killed the necromancer, destroyed the undead, and took a lot of damage from a gray render zombie. They scurried down the tunnels together, away from an small band of reinforcements and into the safety of Chiron's secret tunnels. They got pretty excited because now they know that the final battle is all the remains.

My Reactions to the Session
First. the good side. I think that all the time I spent to consider all the elements of every encounter in these tunnels really paid off. Because of all the details, I knew how PC actions in one part would affect the encounter in another part. This led to an easy flow in my own mind about what to narrate and how the combatants might fight.

Another thing that was a strong point in this session was that every character had something to do. The rogue did a lot of sneaking and scouting which balances the fact that since they're fighting warforged, she isn't as effective in combat. The cleric was imbued with the power of his god a couple of times and able to convert spells to conjuration [healing] despite being in the Mournlands. He played this up and tried to commune with his god during one of the rest periods to learn more about when he could expect this. The ranger, though blind, kept firing his arrows guided by the wizard and ended up stealing a kill from the PC fighter. He reported later this was one of his favorite parts. The wizard had plenty of opportunity to do some blasting and continued his role in the group as kill-stealing vulture, repeatedly killing high hit point targets with magic missile. The warforged tank was the only one who could go toe to toe with either the titans or the gray render zombie and both encounters encouraged him to do just that.

Second, on the bad side, The encounters in this session were very challenging. In itself this would be fine and appropriate for the approach to a campaign end. One thing that I'm a little dissatisfied with though was that the encounters required healing despite the PCs being in the Mournlands. For example, during the combat with the titans, the warforged PC was reduced to something like 11 hit points, given the damage the titans were dishing per round, that was easily death in one round. At that point I told the cleric that as promised by his god, the cleric's healing powers were with him now when he really needed it. I allowed one opportunity to convert a spell before that effect dissipated but still it felt a bit too Deus Ex Machina for my tastes. After the encounter with the necromancer, the two blinded PCs required Remove Blindness/Deafness. The only way they are going to get that is through the power of the cleric's God again, miraculously granting the cleric two of those spells before preparing his spells for the final battle. I had considered making Chiron level 5 instead of level 4 (therefore able to cast 3rd level spells) when the PCs encountered him and giving his this ability. However, that would violate the GM rule to not let an NPC outshine a PC. Still it left a bad taste in my mouth to use this Dues Ex Machina effect not once but twice to make sure they have the combat capacities they need for the final combat.

Next Session
Before we ended the session, I showed the PCs the dais upon which the final battle will take place because Chiron described it to them. This was an awesome moment and showing them the scene created a great cliff hanger. They oohed and ahed appropriately as I put the pieces together but when I put the quarters in for the stairs and showed them how the leads balance on the quarters, they were dumbfounded. That was an awesome GM moment. They also started asking questions about the Lord of the Blades and his combat abilities. A few truths and a few red herrings later and they were really scared. This campaign will be finished in the next session. Then I get a little break.