ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

Grand Experiments: Eclipse is a Robot!

“You are members of a shadowy government conspiracy to assassinate the President and derail the proceedings to have the US join the League of Allied Nations. To do this you have tracked down and taken control of an experimental weapon created by a secret government project.”

“Due to a glitch this device believes it is a human being…”

– excerpt from the conspirators’ handout

During my New Century City superhero campaign (the one that spawned all the M&M adventures), one of the subplots was that a main PC, the rookie hero Eclipse, didn’t know his origin. He was raised by foster parents, but had vague hints that his real parents were scientists that had given him his powers (with science!) before some disaster had taken their lives yadda yadda yadda. I know — crazy superhero stuff.

So we’re about 40 games into the campaign, and I decide to run a showcase episode “Origin of the Eclipse” to explore the secrets of his past. At least that’s what I say I’m doing…

We start off with all the usual shticks. Suspicious people turn up who seem to be either trying to warn Eclipse or find out what he knows, there are old photos of people who seem eerily familiar, incomplete files of ominous portent, allusions to secret projects better left buried — all the standard build-up as we warm up the mystery.

There a few are close scrapes and a bad encounter with knock-out gas, until finally Eclipse corners one of the guys who seems to know a lot but dreads saying anything useful (“you’re better off not knowing! leave the past alone!”). And this guy looks very afraid of Eclipse, which is strange, because Eclipse is a lovable hero. Just then Eclipse spots a sniper on a nearby roof and heroically leaps to shield the guy. Bang! Eclipse gets shot (did I mention his powers did not include being bullet proof?) but when he looks down instead of blood he sees sparks and broken circuitry. The guy he just saved is looking at him in horror, saying “oh my god, it’s true! You’re not human. You’re a robot!”

And then Eclipse blacks out. End game session: to be continued.

Woo, surprise! You’re not what you think you are!

But that’s not the experimental part.

As the game is breaking up I have a quick huddle with Eclipse’s player and admit that no, of course Eclipse really isn’t a robot, just wait and see what happens. Because it’s his character, right? I’m really not trying to jerk him around or leave him hanging. But I tell him to keep it under his hat and I don’t tell any of the other players, so on the email list there are all these “holy crap, Eclipse is a robot?!?” messages flying around, because it is a pretty surprising twist.

Metagaming spelled backwards is Gnimagatem

So the next game session (Origin of the Eclipse, part 2) we have this NormalVision/VillainVision scene where the other players (who are running their own superheroes most of the game) play the NPC spies/conspirators who’ve now captured robot-Eclipse and are reprogramming him to follow their orders and carry out a scheme to assassinate the president. [Technically it's only sort of NormalVision, since the NV players are in the scene with a normal PC.]

I send Eclipse’s player out of the room to brief the other players on their roles as the conspirators. I give them a background handout outlining their whole plan, how they need to handle the robot-Eclipse and get him to relinquish his delusions of humanity, the works. They’re even told how they’ve opened an access panel on Eclipse and attached leads to monitor his functions, and how if he gets uppity they can override him with a particular command phrase.

But here’s the thing: as I already said, Eclipse really isn’t a robot. Early in the last game when Eclipse got knocked out by gas, the conspirators really captured him and hypnotized him. They gave him a post-hypnotic suggestion, so he would think he was seeing cybernetic parts in his body and think he was a robot. The sniper shot blanks, and the rest was a hallucination. The conspirators are just brain-washing him to think he’s a robot so he’ll carry out their nefarious plan without his morals getting in the way. They’re just pretending to attach leads and monitor his “electronic brain” and all that stuff.

The conspirator NPCs of course know all that, but I intentionally don’t tell the players running them in this scene. So now everything in the scene is backwards:

- Eclipse’s player is running a character who thinks he is a robot, but the player knows that’s not true (player knows the truth, character doesn’t)

- The other players are playing characters who are pretending that Eclipse is a robot to trick him, but the players think it’s for real (characters know the truth, players don’t)

It’s crazy backwards metagaming, players having less knowledge than the characters.

Who’s the Audience?

They play it all out, with the conspirators pushing Eclipse to stop pretending to be a person, and Eclipse doing a reticent “yes– masters–” bit. Then just a few scenes later the players (now back playing their normal superheroes) uncover the conspiracy, find out about the brainwashing attempt, and realize they have to find and stop Eclipse. Mystery over.

The question is, who was that scene for anyway? Sure all that inversion of player/character knowledge is interesting and experimental, but what purpose did it serve?

The more obvious reason is that a good story needs to come out one piece at a time. You have to absorb and accept each moment before the next twist comes along and changes everything. If you just summarized what happened or skipped to the end (“Eclipse was brainwashed to think he was a robot and assassinate the president, now we have to stop him”) it’s all at arms length. It’s not interesting. But if you live through all the twists and turns you get sucked in (q.v. Revelations).

The other players were surprised to find out Eclipse was a robot, and later when they find out it was a trick they get to say holy crap all over again. They really “get” the experience of Eclipse thinking he’s a robot, because they’re in the scene doing it, rather than just hearing about it later. They’re participating in the plot, not just watching it. That’s part of why it’s _a game_ not a story.

Which leads us to the other more slippery reason, which is that this whole metagaming flip actually makes the conspirator players stand in as surrogate-victims. By tricking those other players into believing the lies their own (temporary) characters are telling, those players are taking the place of Eclipse’s player as the ones getting deceived. We get the suspense and impact of a player character turning out to be some kind of monster, but the player who actually cares (Eclipse’s player) isn’t left hanging by it because he already knows it’s all fake. See, I told you it was slippery.

Take Home Lessons: Respect gets Respect

Attentive readers will jump up and down and shout that in a previous article I said something along the lines of “it is forbidden to interfere with the flow of information between the character and the player. You can never say ‘yes, your character knew that all along, but I didn’t tell you.’” But I’d remind the gentle reader that I also said, hell yes you can, just recognize that you are playing with dynamite and breaking all the rules.

This game was definitely a special case, since the players were controlling NPCs, not their normal characters. I took pretty good care to make sure the people with real investment (Eclipse’s player in this case) were not usurped — that was really the whole point.

And that’s the take-home lesson. If there’s ownership and investment, respect it and think about what you’re doing, but if there isn’t, well knock yourself out. You can get away with crazy stuff in a one-shot game that you couldn’t in a long campaign, but of course the flip side is that if you did it in a long campaign it is potentially much more meaningful. But dangerous.

What happened to poor not-really-a-robot Eclipse? When the dust settled, he knew nothing more about his origin than he did at the start — the clues the conspirators left in his path were just fabrications to throw him off balance and make him vulnerable to their suggestions. Luckily he also failed to assassinate the President — but not for lack of trying — and the heroes found out that in a world with superheroes and supervillains, the Secret Service is not to be trifled with, because you can’t outrun telepaths.

Not So Grand Experiments: the Battle of Chuck E. Cheese (part 2)

(continued from part 1, of course)

We’re told that the premise of the scenario is that our two teams have boarded an abandoned freighter and are vying to gain control. The goal is simple: wipe out the other team and you win. Theoretically this is only the first scenario and we may play through others if we have the time. As it turns out there will be no time for more scenarios: this one combat will consume the entire game session.

I don’t waste any time establishing that my character is a smart-ass. There’s an equipment draw, the caveat being that there is only one of each thing on the list — if someone already picked it, you can’t have it. Instead of taking the items that were obviously meant for my character (like the big dwarven hammer), I grab things that are essential to people on the other team. The samurai wants the one (foam) katana, so naturally I take it instead. Then I make light sabre noises while I wave it around mockingly. Of course I have zero ability with a katana, but as a player I am trying to start breaking down the simulation and kick start the feuding and the fighting. Forget the scenario: the samurai now wants to find me and kick my ass.

For good measure I provoke everyone else too: as a dwarf I have lowlight vision (or whatever they call it in Shadowrun) so of course I use every miscellaneous draw I have to snatch up all the nightvision/infrared goggles… which of course I don’t need. Now I’ve cornered the market on seeing in the dark. My neck is gleefully festooned with unused goggles and (hopefully) I’ve made myself public enemy number 1.

Big ship floor plans are laid out on the game table and our two teams are placed at different starting points. Theoretically we don’t know where the other team is and we don’t have a map of the place (even though we can see the whole thing) so there is substantial metagaming required to block out all this information. It’s something of a moot point because (surprisingly) the teams start out right next to each other and both have surprisingly good means of finding each other (either magical life detection, or super senses, or just listening carefully for footsteps).

Again I’m thinking: clever! By showing us the whole map and letting us metagame, the GM is diffusing the tactical element and making it easy for us to manipulate events. We can split up and “accidentally” bump into people if we want, setting up interactions with particular characters we might want to face off against.

Of course none of that happens. The two teams collide almost immediately, get locked in a brutal slugfest in a small room. Most of the characters never leave that room for the rest of the game. It’s a long, long point-blank gun fight across a conference room table. With fake guns.

Confusing the Metaphor: Your imaginary character pretends to take damage

Remember when you first started gaming? Someone said, okay we have these imaginary characters in this imaginary world and they’re going to slay imaginary monsters and collect imaginary treasure. And you might have thought to yourself, why would I care what happens to an imaginary hero? Who cares if I jump into the imaginary dragon’s mouth or kill all the other imaginary characters in their sleep and take their imaginary treasure. None of it’s real, right?

This is the first critical step of learning to game: agreeing that the fate of all these imaginary people means anything. Agreeing to treat the whole imaginary sequence of events as being in any way important. Buying in and respecting the fiction.

It’s a crucial skill, but in a game like the Battle of Chuck E. Cheese it can be your worst enemy.

The fight breaks out, and bang bang bang, it’s shadowrunner versus shadowrunner. Katanas slash, monofilament whips slice, and guns blaze… except of course, they don’t.

It’s all fake remember? Our characters are running around in a maze of rooms, but we’re shooting “lazer tag” guns and hitting each other with foam boffer weapons. The terrifying monofilament whip is perhaps a bit of string. Damage was indicated by a wrist gadget with colored bars. You had ten slots and each lit up as you took more damage. When it hit ten you were “dead”, which meant (by the rules) your character was supposed to stand still and refrain from talking.

And here lies the rub. Players at a game table are trained over and over again to look at little figures on a board and roll dice and imagine they are fighting for their lives. Then the Battle of Chuck E. Cheese comes along and says “your imaginary character isn’t taking pretend damage this time, he’s pretending to take pretend damage.”

Intellectually that’s easy to grasp. Reading this description, you get it. But at the table, in the moment, that distinction got lost over and over and over again. Everyone forgot it was a game about a fake fight and acted like it was just a game about a fight, just like every other game. Their training took over.

Overwhelmed by Crunch

It didn’t help that we used the exact same combat rules as normal Shadowrun. There’s a lot of dice rolling, a lot of calculating results and figuring out damage thresholds and all that crunch puts the focus back on the details of the combat even though there isn’t really a combat going on.

“Oh man, that explosion is going to wipe you guys out!” But wait, I say, it’s not an explosion, it’s just a flashbulb going off or something like that right? “Uh, yeah sure. But look at the Shadowrun rules for explosions inside enclosed spaces! The shock waves will bounce off the walls and do damage again!” But there are no shock waves, there is no explosion, right?

We even used the penalties caused by being wounded: you get shot by a faux lazer tag Uzi, take a big hit on your damage badge, but because the Shadowrun rules say wounded people take penalties you now have a harder time doing things like climbing up ladders. Which of course makes no sense — you’re not wounded, you’re fine.

So when a shadowrunner popped up and strafed someone with a (fake) smartgun and then rolled massive damage, the reaction wasn’t “well ha, ha the damage is fake so I don’t care.” Because of the wound penalties the imaginary damage wasn’t really imaginary at all. It really did impair you. So your urge is to react like it’s a real fight, because it is, sort of.

Add to that a very basic psychological factor: if you are getting spanked by mechanics, you want to hit back. When another player spends five minutes rolling dice to heap damage on you (and yes, resolving a single attack took a pretty healthy chunk of time) you want to show that your character is just as effective and smack them back with the mechanics. But it’s another trap: you get sucked back into believing in the fake fight. You play you character fighting for his/her life, instead of playing your character running around pretending to be in a fight.

Mistaken Authority: Chuck E. Cheese is not the GM

Something I do quite a bit in games is make suggestions in-character that as a player I don’t want to have happen, and then let the other characters talk me out of it.

I have my shady mercenary grumble about how we could forget protecting the village from the bandits and just slink off with our reward money. Why? Because that gives other more noble characters an opportunity to speechify about goodness and the sanctity of human life. No, I (the player) don’t want to slink off. I (the player) want to spur roleplaying. I’m passing them the ball, providing contrast so the other players can show off their virtues. I’m providing a straw man for the other players to beat on.

Where it goes horribly awry is when the other players (or even the GM) don’t get it. You can stop play and say straight to someone’s face “no, I don’t really want to do that, I’m having my character say this because you are going to talk me out of it and it will lead to an interesting roleplaying interaction” yet some people will still look at you like you have two heads. They think you are doing the “why would my druid leave the woods?” slavish roleplaying thing, blocking the game because it’s against your character.

Which is what happens in the Battle of Chuck E. Cheese. I play devil’s advocate and have my smart-ass dwarf prattle on about how we could just find a quiet room and hide and take a nap, wait the whole thing out — we get paid either way, right? Naturally I (the player) don’t want to do that because it would be incredibly boring, but I want to provoke a discussion of why we would or wouldn’t do that and underline that this whole thing isn’t real. Get that roleplaying started, I figure.

It doesn’t fly. Not even a little.

I think I’m embracing the premise and mocking the suits from Chuck E. Cheese.

The other players think I’m rejecting the premise and mocking the GM.

Once again this is a good habit that has gone horribly awry. Any prepared GMed game requires a gentleman’s agreement: the players are basically agreeing to play the game that was prepared. It’s a faux pas to let the GM prep a dungeon and then show up at the game and say “you know what, let’s not go in.” Sure it happens all the time, and sure sometimes it turns out great, but as a player you have to recognize what you are doing. You have to respect the time the GM already invested, just as you respect the time everyone at the table is spending right now, during the game. (and yes, there’s the whole other discussion about how interacting with the prepared game is not the same as doing what the GM wants — you can interact with it however you want, you just shouldn’t walk away from it)

The players in this game have learned that rule and taken it too far. They are confusing the GM and his authority with the NPCs within the game who are giving us the job. They are forgetting that Chuck E. Cheese is not the GM. Breaking the rules of the simulation is not breaking the rules of the game we are all sitting down to play.

So Close But So Far

Mix all that together, and you have a painful, painful game. Sometimes games get bogged down in combat and drag on, but at least then you get to win at the end. But there are no winners in the Battle of Chuck E. Cheese, because the battle was (by design) meaningless in the first place. You couldn’t even weakly cheer about surviving danger because there wasn’t any.

There were bright moments where the game almost broke through, where the players almost crossed the line. We’d established that the different types of armor we got were also just badges, and one of the players got the clever idea to just snatch the uberpowerful assault armor badge off his opponent’s lapel in the middle of the melee. It was an awesome idea, and I jumped up and down and screamed for the player to go through with it even though he was on the other team. I was hoping the whole slugfest — which was now boring almost everyone to tears — would finally turn itself on its head, but he missed his attack roll and the whole idea got dropped. No one else ran with it.

Another time one “dead” character was standing around in the middle of the firefight, muttering to himself about how tragic it was that now that he was dead all he had to do was stand around and wait to collect his pay (“oh the agony!”) but that roleplaying was a few slender seconds next to minutes and minutes of other characters rolling dice and figuring out their attacks (again, overwhelmed by crunch).

There was also a momentarily hilarious exchange where that same “dead” character got frisked in the middle of a firefight by a female teammate desperate for some equipment. They momentarily alluded to how she was copping a feel on the handsome “dead” guy now that she had a chance (“um, that’s not the pocket I keep the medkit in”) but again it got overwhelmed by the needs of the fake fight.

In the end even the people who were interested in roleplaying (my comrades in arms) were just too bored and tired to try anymore.

My Bad

My mistake was thinking there really was a secret plan for this game session. There wasn’t. It was a straight fight between PCs, minus the danger of death. It was a way for the GM to accommodate a bunch of players for a single game session without derailing his usual game. That’s all.

Even without a plan, it could have been an accidental masterpiece. Even completely inexperienced players could have wandered into interesting territory by getting irked and choosing to break the “rules” of Chuck E. Cheese. And it could have been awesome.

But good players don’t break the GM’s rules, and that’s where the tragedy comes in. Great players would have run with the scenario. Even worse players would have probably done better, because they might have rebelled more. The middle path of “following the rules” led to the worst of all possible games.

Tell us who won!

Please… seriously? It’s a fake fight remember? “The only way to win is not to play,” and so on.

I will tell you that the dwarf (harkening to racial stereotypes) was the only character to search for and find treasure. But that coveted treasure turned out to be a measly heavy pistol. Blinded by rage (and a desire to finish the game dramatically since time was up) he sprang on his foes, foam katana flashing, and was mercilessly (virtually) cut down by flashlight guns. Finally. Then we all went home.

Not So Grand Experiments: the Battle of Chuck E. Cheese

I’ve said it before: bad games are often more educational than successful games, and if that’s the case it stands to reason that catastrophic failures can be downright enlightening.

Games like the Battle of Chuck E. Cheese.

I wasn’t the GM this time just a player, and not even a regular player, just a one-time visitor from out of state. Except for another guest player and one regular player (who we were visiting and was how we got invited to play) I had never met any of the other players or the GM.

Sometimes being an outsider gives you a unique perspective. Other times it just paves the way for a total culture clash. As you probably guessed, this game went badly. Very badly. But why it failed, and how it had a (perhaps accidental) kernel of untapped awesome, may make it all worthwhile.

The Setup

The game is Shadowrun and the regular characters, we quickly see, are classic runners, bad-ass mercenaries, street samurai armed to the teeth and operating outside the law, living and dying by their reps, yadda yadda yadda. Including us two guests there are a total of seven players at the table plus the GM. Not a small group.

I’ve only got passing familiarity with the system, but that’s okay because the GM has pre-made characters for us guests. I’m handed an arrogant, sarcastic smarter-than-thou dwarf sorcerer. Hmm, says my danger sense, this could be trouble. Playing an obnoxious character with people you’ve never met before can be tricky — you want to make sure they know it’s the character, not you, being a jerk. It also seems like an odd choice for the GM to throw in since it’s so potentially disruptive, but I gear up for the roleplaying challenge.

The Job

The game starts and all the characters are offered pretty handsome pay for what they are told is a zero-risk job. That’s right: no danger whatsoever. Too good to be true, right?

We all go to the address, which turns out to be the Shadowrun-world equivalent of a Chuck E. Cheese: it’s a family fun center, complete with a pizza parlor, video games and a lazer tag arena. Eyebrows go up.

It’s after hours and the place is closed, but some suits meet us and give us the briefing in the back room: they’re developing a new lazer tag game based on the exciting life of the mercenary shadowrunner, so they want actual shadowrunners (aka us) to playtest it and give feedback. We’ll be fighting each other but all the weapons are fake (flashlight guns and foam katana) and harming the other players is strictly verboten. It is a high paying, no danger job, just as advertised.

Logistically player-vs-player combat is a clever way to solve the big party problem: since we spend all our time fighting each other everybody gets more play time than if we were fighting an external enemy. Very smart.

The Twist

The suits rattle off a long list of do’s and don’ts. Just a minute, asks my arrogant dwarf, do we get a bonus if we win? No. Well do we get docked pay if we lose? No again. What if we break this long list of rules? Do we still get paid? Yes, we still get paid the full amount.

Light bulbs begin to go on above my head. I’m keeping my cards close to my vest but I’m thinking to myself that this scenario is absolute genius. I’m expecting that either:

A) we start normal, but then the second plot emerges. The whole thing is a trap, or something goes haywire and the system turns against (a la every Danger Room and Holodeck plot known to man) and then we have to deal with this new threat unarmed and ill-equipped.

Which would be okay, but better yet:

B) we start normal, but the whole thing breaks down as people start cheating left and right or just ignoring the rules and doing whatever they want. Think about it: all these hardcore street mercenaries are put in this faux combat, and there is no reward or penalty for winning or losing so it becomes all about character interaction. Suppressed personal grudges within the team come out. It’s all roleplaying, even roleplaying whether you follow the completely absurd rules or not. Do tempers flare enough that people start actually attacking each other? We can only hope.

I’m really hoping it’s B — it’s a character gold mine. Just as danger forces people to band together to survive (a la West Marches), an absolute lack of danger means people can turn against each other with utter abandon. You can roleplay petty without penalty.

As we are split into teams and lead into the combat maze, I am secretly excited. Being an obnoxious dwarf suddenly makes a lot more sense. This, I think, is going to be awesome.

next: part 2, in which my expectations turn out to be totally wrong

Grand Experiments: We’ll always have Lorngard

As far as grand experiments go this one was pretty short: one game session in the middle of an ongoing campaign. Even though the experimental part was over pretty quickly it became a sounding board for the characters for years to come. Like swinging a hammer at a vase, it all happens pretty fast but the vase remembers it for a long time.

The concept was simple: the players showed up for the regular game, but instead of their normal characters I handed them each a short paragraph with a name of a new character and some details about their day-to-day life (occupation, friends, romances, etc). Players only looked at their own blurbs, not each others. No further explanation of who/what/why. And then… go!

This was a long-term game with well established characters in the middle of a major plot arc (massive quest to do the necessary thing by finding the mystical hidden city, the eponymous Lorngard). The last game had ended with the heroes fighting past the immortal guardian of the gates and entering the city… only to be engulfed in a blinding white light — end scene.

The reasonable reaction is of course “what the huh?”, but these players, bless their hearts, took on their new characters and just went with it, playing out scenes in their ordinary peaceful lives, taking lunch with lovers and working on their latest sculptures, etc. They were, as they say, game fish.

In fairly short order clues start to emerge that point to the truth, at least for the players if not their characters: these “new” characters have certain similarities to their normal characters in the game. Physical similarities, interests, etc. And the city where they are living this peaceful life and have lived since birth, is (surprise, surprise) mythical Lorngard, the same city the PCs were about to finally enter in the last game.

Naturally pieces fall together. We play out the discovery that when the heroes fought their way into the peaceful, utopic city, the denizens who eschewed all war had no means of self-defense except to embrace and integrate the intruders. Using their considerable mental powers (“the mind is the arsenal of utopia”) they implanted false memories of being born and raised in the city. To make the picture complete some citizens volunteered to also have their memories altered to become friends and families of the new-comers so they would believe their part in charade (a key point as it turns out).

The mask comes off, sort of

All very Philip K Dick. An interesting reality twist until the mask is pulled off and everything goes back to normal, right?

But here’s the thing: either because I knew the characters well enough after years of play, or because the players molded their play as they sensed what was going on, or just because the gaming gods loved us, these new fictional lives of the heroes struck a deep, deep chord.

Each was carefully crafted to match the inner desires of the character: The once morally dubious wizard who was in some places distrusted and in others reviled was instead a respected scholar, wiling away his days in pleasant academic pursuits. The conflicted warrior-servant of demanding gods was now a simple sculptor, spending hours in his studio with no larger concerns than his hammer and chisel and the marble before him. And so on.

The players embraced the idea that here, in these fictional lives, their characters were happy. Because their lives in the regular campaign were fraught with perils, duty, and enemies on all sides (even among their so-called allies), the idea of a peaceful, tranquil existence was very, very attractive to the characters. A laying down of burdens, a rest from all their troubles.

When their real memories were returned to them, I let the each player decide to what degree they believed their real memories vs their implanted ones. After all, if you are going along with your life, and then someone comes along and says “it’s a trick! this isn’t your real life!” and dumps a whole second life on you… well why should you believe them? If they wanted they could have perfect memory of both lives side-by-side, or just expunge one entirely — whatever they wanted.

Naturally the players knew which was real, but faced with a life of endless danger and heroic sacrifice or a chance to have a peaceful fulfilling life as a scholar of rare languages and finally getting to write that book you always wanted, most of the players embraced the idea that their characters preferred the fiction to the reality.

They couldn’t turn their backs on the duties of their “real” lives, but they cherished the lives they could have lived. They chose to have the false memories still feel real to them. They had awkward partings with the people who had also had their memories altered to be friends and lovers since those people also had that double-memory. Because those people had volunteered because their own real lives weren’t so hot, they preferred the fiction as well, leading to complex feelings and “we’ll always have Lorngard” moments. How do you say goodbye to your wife who you simultaneously know you’ve only been with for a few days and also remember spending a decade with?

For years afterwards, the characters in the game clung to a kind of double-identity, their normal self but then also this ideal “peace time” self, an unattainable gentler life that they knew fate had denied them. Their “Lorngard names” became a secret private thing among them, and the (false) memories of their years in the city long before the few actual days they spent there were precious to them.

It unearthed a whole new human dimension in the campaign, an undercurrent of yearning that had been hinted at before (“wouldn’t it be nice to retire to Bayvinn Village?”) but never had such a clear voice.

Why did it work?

So to dissect the experience, what made it such a smash hit? As always these factors aren’t absolutes, just variables that increase or decrease the odds of success.

Good players — I’ll start off with this obvious one because it’s the foundation for everything else. The players jumped in and went with the experience.

Know the players and the characters — The players embraced their fictional lives because I knew the players and the characters very, very well and could craft new lives that clicked for each of them. I gave them what they subconsciously wanted. I didn’t do as good of a job for some of the characters (through lack of inspiration or insight) and not surprisingly those players didn’t adopt it as deeply.

Voluntary acceptance — Each of the players got to choose whether to embrace or reject the memories. I didn’t force them to change their characters. You could also call this “respecting the players’ control of their characters.” The game world (like the real world) is full of things that can change you beyond your control, but in gaming there’s a gentleman’s agreement that while you might destroy someone else’s character (bang, you’re dead), changing them against their will is a no-no (bang, you’re a gnome).*

Change is only meaningful against a baseline — Because the players had been running these characters for years, adopting this kind of personality change was a huge decision. It had a lot of meaning to the players. If this had been a pick-up game with new characters, it would have been interesting but not a big deal.

I was going to say that “no malice” was part of the equation, since the NPCs doing this weren’t really trying to screw the PCs, but I could see other scenarios where evil arch-nemesis did something tragically character changing but the players were into it and embraced it anyway. So scratch that one.

There’s another lesson in this experiment. When I set up the scenario I _never_ foresaw the impact it would have. I thought the players would gain an insiders perspective on Lorngard (kind of a proto-NormalVision, but with the same characters thinking they were other characters) but then snap out of it and be pretty much back to normal. I only came up with the idea that the characters could retain their fictional lives in parallel when I saw how much the players were embracing the whole thing.

Which makes the lesson: be warned, your experiments may be bigger than you think. Because you are wired into the tropes and themes of the game you may be subconsciously creating something that strikes a greater chord than you realize. You may be playing with fire. If you’re lucky your experiments will smash your test tubes and stomp on your preconceptions. You want your players to go with the flow and think on their feet? You should too.

* miscellaneous gaming corollary: Players should always be allowed to choose character death rather than imposed change.

West Marches: Running Your Own

Alarming fact: brave GMs all over the place are taking up the torch and starting their own West Marches games. Scary isn’t it?

I’ve already had some private email conversations about how one would actually build and run a West Marches of their very own. Maybe you’ve got the bug too. Early symptoms include a desire to build vast wilderness areas and enlist hordes of players to explore it. Sound familiar? Then read on for a few (hopefully) helpful tips:

Building It

make town safe and the wilds wild — Having the town be physically secure (walled or in some cases protected by natural features like rivers or mountains) is very useful for making a sharp “town = safe / wilderness = danger” distinction. Draconian law enforcement inside town, coupled with zero enforcement in the wilds outside town, also helps. Once you are outside the town you are on your own.

keep NPC adventurers rare — Or even better non-existent. It’s up to the players to explore the wilderness, not NPCs. As soon as you have NPCs going on adventures of their own you move the focus away from player-initiated action. NPC adventurers also makes it harder to explain why interesting things weren’t already discovered — players love being the first to find the Horned Tower or the Abbot’s Study. Keep this in mind when you devise the background for your region. Is it a newly opened frontier? Or is adventuring just something no one in their right mind does in this world (the West Marches premise)?

build dungeons with treasure rooms, locked rooms, pockets of danger — A solid party may be able to wipe out the primary critters in a dungeon, but there should always be spots that are a lot harder to clear. On those rare occasions when a group _does_ manage to clear a dungeon or crack a treasure room, they will stand on the tables in the tavern and cheer, not in some small part to brag to the other players who weren’t on that sortie.

Running It

appear passive — The world may be active, but you the GM should appear to be passive. You’re not killing the party, the dire wolf is. It’s not you, it’s the world. Encourage the players to take action, but leave the choices up to them. Rolling dice in the open helps a lot. The sandbox game really demands that you remain neutral about what the players do. It’s their decisions that will get them killed or grant them fame and victory, not yours. That’s the whole idea.

provide an easy lead to get new players started — Once players are out exploring, each new discovery motivates them to search more, but how do you get them started? Every time I introduced a batch of new players I gave them a very basic treasure map that vaguely pointed to somewhere in the West Marches and then let them go look for it. Whether it was the dwarven “treasure beyond bearing” or the gold buried beneath the Red Willow, a no-brainer “go look for treasure here” clue gets the players out of town and looking around. Of course once the players are in the wilds, they may find that getting to that treasure is much harder than it looks.

the adventure is in the wilderness, not the town — As per the discussion of NPCs above, be careful not to change the focus to urban adventure instead of exploration. You can have as many NPCs as you want in town, but remember it’s not about them. Once players start talking to town NPCs, they will have a perverse desire to stay in town and look for adventure there. “Town game” was a dirty word in West Marches. Town is not a source of info. You find things by exploring, not sitting in town — someone who explores should know more about what is out there than someone in town.

let the players take over — Don’t write game summaries, don’t clean up the shared map. You want the players to do all those things. If you do it, you’ll just train them not to.

competition is what it’s all about — Fair rewards, scarcity, bragging rights — these are the things that push the game higher. You could have a “solo” West Marches game with just one group doing all the exploring, and it would probably be a fun and pleasant affair, but it’s _nothing_ compared to the frenzy you’ll see when players know other players are out there finding secrets and taking treasure that _they_ could be getting, if only they got their butts out of the tavern. (Hmm, is this why I get a kick out of running Agon? It’s true, I’m a cruel GM.)

require scheduling on the mailing list — It doesn’t matter whether a bunch of players agreed to go on an adventure when they were out bowling, they have to announce it on the mailing list or web forum (whichever you’re using for your scheduling). This prevents the game from splintering into multiple separate games. If you notice cliques forming you can make a rule requiring parties to mix after two adventures. Conversely if you notice players being dropped from follow-up sorties too often just because some people can’t wait to play, you can require parties to stay together for two adventures. That forces a little more long time strategy in party selection, less greedy opportunism. Season to taste.

fear the social monster — This is the big, big grand-daddy or all warnings: even more so than many games, West Marches is a social beast. In normal games players have an established place in the group. They know they are supposed to show up every Tuesday to play — they don’t have to think about that or worry about whether they “belong” in the group. On the other hand West Marches is a swirling vortex of ambition and insecurity. How come no one replied when I tried to get a group together last week? Why didn’t anybody invite me to raid the ogre cave? And so on and so on ad infinitum. The thrilling success or catastrophic failure of your West Marches game will largely hinge on the confidence or insecurity of your player pool. Buckle up.

Running your own West Marches game? Post a link in the comments so everyone can take a look and grow green with envy. I’ve got some links I need to post but if you hurry you can beat me to it.

Not So Grand Experiments: Dream Cantos

A wizard discovers a strange tome with tales of adventures in far off lands. When he sleeps that night, he finds himself transported to those lands and confronted with those adventures. But he need not face them alone, for faithful companions from far and wide are summoned in their dreams to stand by his side…

This was an actual D&D mini-series I ran. There was one central PC (the aforesaid wizard) and each time he was drawn into a dream adventure he could pick from among all his allies who would would join him no matter where they were in the waking world. Naturally that turned out to be characters who belonged to players who could make it to that game session — what magic! The title came from the chapters of the book (poetically called cantos), each of which was a different adventure.

By day the heroes were all back in their respective cities, dealing with their own affairs, including some unrelated solo adventures on their own turf. At night they go to sleep and magically come together to continue the dream adventure.

Clever little premise for a game, huh?

The thing is, there is no meat on dem bones. The “any PC anywhere can join you” was convenient, but as far as the dream quests went, much like a city floating in the clouds, it sounds fantastic but doesn’t actually change anything. The PCs still just go through the adventure like normal. It’s fancy window dressing with no real heart, a Not So Grand Experiment.

Help Keep Fantasy In Its Place

There are lots of “fantastic” elements you can include in a game that may seem amazing, astounding, trippy-freaky-cool, but wouldn’t really make any difference in how the players behaved or thought about the game. There may be a moment of “cool, galleons navigating the spacey void!” (possibly with talking hippo guys) or “cool, it’s like a normal city, but in a bubble beneath the sea!” but then the players go about their business and forget about the fantastic bit entirely. They have sword fights on the galleons (in space or not), they look for pawn shops in the city (underwater or not).

It’s not that you shouldn’t have wild, fantastic elements in your game that would make Lord Dunsany weep for joy — by all means, have at it. It’s that you shouldn’t expect a few wild, fantastic details to create a wild, fantastic game. You could even argue that the more fantastic the setting becomes, the easier it is to ignore it.

So just ask yourself: is this fantastic detail you’re adding the heart and soul of your game, or is it just a nice bit of flavor? If you can remember which it is and not expect it to do the heavy lifting for you, you’ll do fine. Because you can have a boring sword fight on top of a giant flying turtle as easily as you can on the ground.