NormalVision (part 4), Taking it Farther

First, NormalVision thus far:

NormalVision (part 1)
NormalVision (part 2), When Should I Use It?
NormalVision (part 3), Preparing a Scene

Now let’s look at a few ways to take it even farther.

Making a Difference

NormalVision characters are usually more witnesses than prime movers. They stare out across the deck of the ship in horror as the monster first rises from the waves, but their function is to react in horror not think of a way to defeat the creature. That’s where the PCs come in later. But you can design games so that actions taken by the NormalVision characters (NVCs) affect the rest of the game.

The simplest is the Choice. The NVCs are faced with some decision. All results lead to the rest of the game, but the specific choice matters. The difference may be cosmetic or it may be critical.

Sometimes the Choice is the result of a struggle between the NVCs. The die-hard captain orders a frontal charge on the bunker, but the more liberal lieutenant thinks it’s a suicide attack that will waste the lives of all his men. Who prevails? How far do they go? It’s a critical moment either way, but is it a flashback about a bloody tragedy or a secret moment of cowardice and betrayal? The players decide, maybe without realizing it.

Naturally if there’s only one choice that really fits the genre it’s not a choice at all. Of course the ambitious archaeologist is going to break the seal on the pharaoh’s tomb regardless of local superstition. The player knows it’s a bad idea even if the NVC is blinded by visions of fame, but that’s why it’s NormalVision.

Generally the Choice works best if the decision is firmly rooted in the personalities of the NVCs and not in a tactical decision by the players.

Another option is the Candidate. One of the NVCs is going to do something, or have something done to them. Who it turns out to be will affect the rest of the game. Kids playing in the woods find an inert giant robot. The players don’t know it, but the first one to screw up their courage and touch it will be able to control it permanently (“Giant robot, attack!”). The scenario that follows will be quite different if it’s the neighborhood bully who gets his own giant robot rather than the nice shy kid with the comic book collection.


It is a common dramatic convention to show the audience what the bad guys are doing behind the heroes’ backs. This prepares us for the events that follow and gives context to the conflict. An unexpected or misunderstood conflict is an unappreciated conflict.

VillainVision is a variant of NormalVision in which the players take on the role of their own enemies. The main differences between VillainVision and ordinary NormalVision is that the players will be running ongoing characters (the villains) and they will have the power to influence events if they chose. Just like in NormalVision the goal is to give the players information first hand, not let them determine the course of the action via characters they have no vested interest in. This makes VillainVision a little trickier, and demands greater cooperation from the players. You have to set the scope of VillainVision scenes more carefully. An ideal VillainVision scene is one in which the villains are doing something predictable or talking about something predictable. You can cheat and accomplish this by leaving the ringleader villain in GM control, using that character as a mouthpiece for the revelations.

On the plus side, players will chomp at the bit to roleplay their favorite nemesi. It’s an existing character so the goal is to match the character’s established personality, not create something different, but that can be fun in and of itself. Seasoned roleplayers will relish the chance to try out all those snide comments the antagonists have been making _at_ them all this time.

Example: Unbeknownst to the PCs the mastermind Dr Null is gathering supervillains to take over the city. Players are given a list of supervillains to choose from to play in this VillainVision scene. Most of the supervillains are old enemies of the PCs, so the players understand their characters and have sufficient information to play them in-character. The scene is a meeting of the new supervillain league in which Dr Null welcomes his new comrades and lays out the goals of the new group. Hints are given about his real masterplan, but complete revelation is withheld. Dr Null is played by the GM, and as the ringleader and chairman of the meeting this leaves control of the scene in the GM’s hand. Villains controlled by the players can gloat, object, question, pick fights with other villains, etc.


Why limit players to consistent characters at all? Why not have players keep shifting characters as the story progresses, maybe never going back to old characters at all?

Imagine roleplaying a saga spanning decades or centuries, like the Old Testament or the Silmarillion. Each scene could be hundreds of years apart, with players assuming new characters constantly since their previous ones would be long dead.

In the first scene it’s a dark age of man, and a small group of travelers witness a bright light falling from the sky. The next scene is hundreds of years later, and those first characters are venerated prophets, founding fathers of a young religion. The new characters are idealistic heroes of the crusading army, spreading the faith. The third scene is centuries farther in the future, when the now stagnant theocracy starts to crumble from within. Are the players rebels seeking a return to the original ideals of the prophets, or inquisitors routing out heresy? All the players know that the prophets had feet of clay (having played them), but their characters should have fervent and outraged debate. The players see their own characters’ myth grow down through history, spiraling into something either far darker or far nobler than the source. If you want you can wrap it up with a “what really happened” second half of the first scene, putting the centuries of myth that follow in humble perspective.

Or if you don’t want to span history, how about a “million stories in the naked city” scenario made up of nothing but apparently unrelated vignettes bound by some overarching thread invisible to the characters.

The characters within the different RollingVision scenes could be aware of the events from the other scenes or not. Heroes continuing a century old saga could know the events of the past, but in the “million stories” example the characters would probably know nothing. Maybe like the religious saga above, the new characters know only half-truths or myths. In either case, the players see the overall story even if the characters don’t. The players are the audience, they get to appreciate the big picture.

If you use the Making A Difference option, each scene outcome determines the premise of the next scene. In the century-spanning saga example above, if the players lose the war in one scene, the next scene might be the rising resistance a generation later. If they won, it could be the burdens of rulership their heirs inherit. Be warned, this could lead to a game with many possible branches to prepare for.

A downside of RollingVision is that players will lack connection to their characters since they are constantly changing and there is no main character to relate to. A player may really like a character in one scene and be sorry when they have to leave that character and start with a brand new one.

    Ben Robbins | January 19th, 2006 | | hide comments
  1. #7 Svafa says:

    On the RollingVision I am a bit uncertain. I think the extreme is likely dangerous with most groups, at least in my experience. I did run a game with a similar, though less extreme, setup to the “million stories”.

    Our group was inconsistent, so I created something like West Marches, though a little more directed (I presented options and let them choose). However, I also provided all the characters (about a dozen to start) and then let them pick whichever character they wanted when they sat down. Every game.

    The general idea was that there would always be a premade character available and waiting if someone showed up. Nor were you glued down to one character or role. If you decided that you didn’t like playing a Ranger, then you could try your hand at a Wizard or Barbarian. If you thought the mission for the day might require the abilities of a Cleric, but not a Monk, then you could switch your character.

    But characters and personalities were constants. The first time someone sat down to a new character was always interesting, because they created the personality. And when someone else sat down to the same character they were expected to play with the set personality, and riff off of it. Character sheets ended up with all sorts of fun little notes like “foppish”, “drunkard”, “boisterous”, “dangerously optimistic”, “hacking coughs”, etc.

    And the game was made to be communal like this. They came together, were given their mission (or made it up) and then decided what characters should come. Sometimes they even swapped characters between parts of the mission (maybe the Rogue does intel, but they switch to the Fighter when it’s time to execute on it). It gave the group more of a guild feel, which I think was kind of appropriate for the scenario, since well, they were playing various members of a guild.

    It gave some of the “million stories” feel, but kept the players interested in the characters, as they returned each week. Anyway, an example of what I would consider a slight slight extreme RollingVision. And possibly, more practical to most groups, whether they prefer hack’n’slash or in-depth role-play.

  2. #6 ben robbins says:

    In your article about Player Fear, you made a good point that they have more fear if they walk into it and anticipate it coming.

    That’s exactly right Gumby. The players are more willing to embrace the danger or any disadvantages because they put themselves in it.

  3. #5 Gumby says:

    On the other hand, VillainVision sounds awesome, especially if it features villains that the PCs are already familiar with. In your article about Player Fear, you made a good point that they have more fear if they walk into it and anticipate it coming. An ambush in the night will feel much more exciting when they know it’s coming and they had a minor hand in the preparations for it.

  4. #4 Gumby says:

    I agree, rookie; I’ve never liked any books that sound like Rolling Vision unless I already have a history or connection to the characters from prior sources. It sounds like, for the players, it would run way too high of a risk of feeling like a bunch of one-shots and throwaway characters.

  5. #3 ben robbins says:

    “There is one strength of Normal vision that hasn’t been mentioned, which is the way it can give strength to the main plot by making the casualties seem real.”

    Very good point R00kie.

    “I’m a big fan of ‘normal vision’ but I have to say I’ve hated the ‘Rolling Vision’ concept ever since I read Asimov’s Foundation series.”

    Oooh, touché.

  6. #2 R00kie says:

    There is one strength of Normal vision that hasn’t been mentioned, which is the way it can give strength to the main plot by making the casualties seem real. Finding two bodies beneath a rock wont mean much, but if a week before the players actually played the lovers who huddled together behind a wall hoping the rapaging creature didn’t spot them, then finding the bodies becomes very poniant.

    Its even more interesting to reintroduce survivors. What if the rambling drunk who warns the PCs of impending disaster was one of the characters the players played when disaster happened two years before, and you can really raise interest by introducing a character they know is dead, because they played through their death.

    I’m a big fan of ‘normal vision’ but I have to say I’ve hated the ‘Rolling Vision’ concept ever since I read Asimov’s Foundation series. I guess the Lensman series has a similar Rolling feel near the beginning, but atleast by the third book it settles on one character. I really do like to have central characters to my campaigns even if the players occassionally get to play other characters or aspects of the setting.

    As an experiemnet I am currently considering running a game based around the supporting and auxilliary characters of my campaign, – specifically the players contacts, researchers and leaders. The players are playing agents in the field, but I think I may have something interesting happen back at HQ. Straight off I know the players will be interested, since they already have a vested interest in these characters and any events directly affect the main PCs. Another big advantage is I don’t need to introduce any of the characters – they’ve been interacting with them on a regular basis. The downside is that the characters aren’t disposable, and any deaths will have a huge impact on the campaign (but thats also a benefit in a way). There is a big revolation coming up in the campaign, and just for once I may not allow the main PCs to be the first to find out :)

  7. #1 higgins says:

    Hm, the VillainVision would be a total breaker of intrigue. Players finding out who are really working together is like the “know who the murderer is from the start” example. But it would be interesting to write a blog about scenes witnessed by no-one, which reveal the hinting dialogue and happenings of “anonymous” people.

    RollingVision is an interesting theory. Something like that was offered as a variant gaming style for A Song of Ice and Fire RPG in Green Ronin forums. A player has a main character and multiple minor ones, so he can make the switch more painlessly should his main character die in the midst of the game of thrones.

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