What’s the point?

There is no question that building a setting, or preparing to run stories in a setting is a lot of work. If you are going to go through all of that work, should it not have a point? Games should have a theme, or at least some form of underlying purpose other than being a string of events connected by your will and the players’ gracious acceptance.

I bv no means believe this is easy, nor a matter of stating, “Behold, these are the themes!” For example, about 16 or 17 years ago, I undertook the introduction of Werewolf to a group new to White Wolf games. I had been running Vampire for long enough to be comfortable with the systems, and had had a small group of Garou NPC’s as a feature of my primary Chronicle for several months. The group had heard stories of that Chronicle and had been intrigued by the snippets they’d heard about the lupines. They wanted to get involved in that Chronicle eventually, and they knew I was interested in fleshing out the world, seeing if the games were actually compatible, and trying my hand at a more action-oriented game than I had allowed myself to run for a long, long time. They were a good group of people to game with. I wanted to give them a good game in return.

All they asked for was action, a chance to get used to the WW system, and a setting that allowed them to operate together as a unit. Werewolf allowed for all of that and then some. I sat down to plot out how I could give them their introduction, and slowly escalate the dramatic tension and the variety of action (not necessarily the violence) so as to best help them adjust to using this new system. I made notes about the late-night gaming stories they had been telling and re-telling to get a sense of what sort of things they liked – particularly in terms of “action.” I also wanted to look at those stories to see what sort of actions and reactions to expect from them as players.

What I saw in those stories was that they already operated very much like a pack, and so I could confidently predict which auspices were going to crop up and what sort of group dynamic we’d have. I also saw that the newer and less experienced members of the group tended to automatically mistrust NPCs and the more experienced members seemed to prefer foregoing interaction with NPCs altogether… unless the group was in need of help. All that mistrust should have told me that they had been playing fairly exclusively in adversarial settings ‘against’ their GMs. I missed that point, and thought they were just cautious and used to short-term games where plots had to boil faster than mine. I also noticed one interesting quirk. Due to all the talk of a ‘renaissance in gaming’ going on at that time, a lot of attention was being paid by this group to role-playing (for fear of being rollplayers… Remember that fear?) and some of the best stories this group told entailed times when they had identified their antagonist early on, but had talked themselves out of believing it for one role-playing reason or another.   For the manipulative and competitive GMs this trait could easily be twisted into a method for “beating” the players by preying on this disturbing knack for trusting unto death the one patently evil antagonist in every system and story they attempted. As I said, I missed the sort of relationships their group had had to endure with their previous GMs before becoming a group, so I pegged these tales as interesting, and set about outlining the potential story arcs for the characters, the NPCs and the Chronicle based on the themes of trust and truth. I called the Chronicle, ‘The Lie in Belief.’

I like to keep themes firmly in view, by using chronicle, story, and chapter titles – sometimes scene titles when situations allow, and in recaps try to emphasize the themes. In that game, as I began laying the initial factors which would get the first interactions with the setting and existing characters and NPCs in motion, I kept the ideas of misperception, misplaced belief, and dissembling before me and used it to determine what course the story would take should the characters do nothing. It also served as a measure for whether a scene, event, character, etc. was appropriate for inclusion in my planning. If it didn’t bring out the theme in some way, or serve the theme in the overall arc of the story or chronicle, it was something to save for later.

It turned out that once we started play, the group didn’t really get what I was trying to do with the theme aspect of the game, and that failure in our communication led to some awful losses and setbacks for their characters – ultimately to the demise of the pack leader and the scattering of the pack. They saw my repeated references and use of specific language as artistic flair on my part, and did not grasp the significance of the symbols, music, narrative use of metaphors, and in-game dialogue use of metaphors through which I attempted to give the theme shape. Once things had come to their conclusion, I made a note to myself to make themes even more visible in the future. Obviously, what I was attempting was not working, and if it wasn’t working, I would have to change it – somehow.

In the years between then and now, experience has shown me that no matter how obvious some things are, they are subject to the level of rapport in the gaming group, and the perceptions and involvement of the players. There is no doubt that the rapport between me and this group at t this stage of things was very low. While this sounds like a tale of a failed chronicle, I now count ‘The Lie in Belief’ as a success, although I, like most of the players, looked back on it as ‘great up until that last night…’ (the one where they were pretty much massacred) for a very long time. We continued to view it that way with regret until one night when I announced I was retiring my entire WoD setting to build a new one and was willing to answer questions about what had really been going on. After I explained the underpinnings of the Chronicle, the themes and how I was trying to implement and communicate them, NPC motivations, true allegiances, where the clues had been, etc. the perception of the Chronicle changed for most of us.

Explaining led to a short-term revival and a final showdown which went much more to everyone’s satisfaction – although oddly the survival rate was much, much lower. I think sometimes it is satisfying to go out in blazes of glory. I kept the same theme, so once the story came to its logical end, most players got to see and feel a sense of character growth in line with that theme.

Initially, I could have just given them some things to kill and renown to earn, and if I had done that entertainingly, I think they would have been happy. However, I think that this way each character meant something, each scar, maiming, and death had import, and that when complete our time together did something that transcends the players’ die-rolling, and has left us something we can still talk about.

In the next chronicle, for the very few survivors, we turned the theme on its head in a way, and the characters were faced with disbelief, scorn, and accusations of falsehood by their peers and heroes. Sparks flew and fun was there to be snatched and shaken.

Now, it could easily be argued that to keep the players happy, I should have either A) just delivered the action story they wanted or B) clarified when things started to go astray. A third vocal camp out there likely would talk about the error of allowing story concerns to trump player survival, fudging die-rolls, etc ad nauseum, and to those people I would say that I do not invest time and effort in preparing the environment for stories to be woven as a collaborative effort, simply to turn it into wish-fulfillment fantasy camp for bored, thin-skinned adults with self-esteem issues. With no fear of loss, there is no gain, and without gain, there is no reason to exert any effort. In other words, those in camp C are, in my opinion, so far off base that there is no point in them reading this.

Now with the A and B people, however, there are things to discuss. To those in group A, I can offer a certain sense of agreement. Nothing would have been lost had I just served up some flesh-ripping action… except that, as I indicated above, nothing memorable would have been crafted either. There is nothing special about characters running about bellowing platitudes and taking on imaginary evil-doers. A much worthier pursuit is succeeding in a game where no one is really sure who the evil-doers are, some might wonder if they themselves are the evil-doers, and you keep discovering that the guy you are certain is an evil-doer has once again risked everything to save your furry butt from damnation and possibly death. Finally penetrating the camouflage of confusion, misdirection, and deceit and making an indelible mark on the foundation of the story makes a difference, and carries with it a sense of real accomplishment and satisfaction.

For the B people, I have total agreement. I should have explained my style when I began to get an indication how different it was from what they were used to. I did explain before the first session that music choices, snippets of fiction, the recaps, the way their tales were re-told by others at moots, the way their own tales were received initially, and my scene setting descriptions would all contain clues that were intended to serve two purposes: 1) differentiate the more spiritually active senses of their kind from normal folk and 2) fill-in the gaps that get created in player perception during downtime, during trips to the bathroom, or simply due to the filter of not actually being in the scene. I am more patient now, and better able to understand how that preamble could have been overlooked in the glow of character creation, and I am much  more willing to admit that I may not have been adequately communicating all that I thought I was.

Even though there were communication problems on the meta level, until the sudden end of the first run of the Chronicle, nothing was beyond saving – and thanks to the presence of the theme, was not irretrievable even afterward. As a result, I do try to make an effort to discuss more openly with players the sorts of themes they’d like to explore, let them know what I hope to explore, and try to ensure that everyone is clear. While I am more patient now, I only go so far with this though. Each player needs to bring a certain amount of dedication and attention to the game. Don’t you think?

Earlier I mentioned achieving success in the game. This is something to which I intend to return later.

Themes do not need to be grand. They can be simple and function just as well. In my current game, a long-term series which is just beginning, and in two previous short-term games, I used very basic themes to frame how I laid the initial plots, plotted the initial setting events, and laid foundations for support or opposition among the NPC cast. The characters’ actions, through their interaction with the cast and reaction to those initial events, set things in motion toward the collaborative story and its ultimate conclusion, so I don’t need to script that. I do feel that I need to prepare a good filter for it though, and this is the theme. My last chronicle, Mage, used the very basic theme of greed. All the NP characters were designed with that theme in mind, and all of their routines and goals were plotted with it as a foundation  in some way (some were ambitious, some were selfish, some were frustrated by powerlessness, some were satisfied by nothing, some were altruistic, some were seeking redemption for selfish acts in the past, some were utterly selfless, some had their very selves taken by nameless forces that hungered for their vision über alles…   you get the point).

The players’ characters were designed with this theme in mind as well. They were told that their reason for being together, the source of the events which led to their awakening, and the underlying impetus for the chronicle itself would be the selfish pursuit of immortality – in particular, an object which they were certain would confer it upon those who could locate and use it. With this theme before them, all player choices ended up being flavored and filtered by the idea of there being selfish and selfless roads to take in each instance. Suddenly, things like helping others or being heroic became not just the road to dice rolls and high-action, but something we were exploring from the inside out – from the points-of-view of characters we had built from the ground up to not be the type who had ever chosen to be self-sacrificing heroes.   The quest for the object of course led to all sorts of terrible peril – not just a little peril – and all it would take to end the peril was to *gasp* give up the quest….  “BUT,” say the characters,”WE WANT IT!” and so giving it up or pursuing it, became a way to look at what makes people do the things that they do.

In my view, this elevates play, without detracting from the fun.

The current game is Trinity, and it is built on the game’s core themes of hope, sacrifice, and unity. You can imagine then, how the NPCs are built, and what sorts of plot turnings will be laid out for the characters to choose and twist and cause to come to life. I will comment on this Series more completely in a subsequent series of posts called Trinity: Planning and running the game.

4 Responses to “What’s the point?”
  1. BF Wolfe says:

    for starters, it wasn’t 16+ years ago, because that would mean I am getting old.
    Second, this would also be among my favorite/memorable games. Perhaps even because of the roller coaster results, many wrong turns and realism. In retrospect, yes, you gave us far more clues than we noticed, though I think Tom and Doug were ahead of the pack (pun intended) on those. We were all ready and eager for something different, it just took us a few scrapes, bruises and loss of skin from half of our face to to get the details of how. 🙂 Another explanation that you missed was that we were getting into and enjoying our characters more than you realized. You asked in a different thread why we choose the characters we do. Bloodflyght, for me, was a drastic, and intentional, change from my typical choice. A brutal character in a cerebral game instead of the opposite.
    Too much time has passed to remember details, but I remember you describing some of what we missed. There was a healthy mixture of facts I intentionally ignored, some I should have noticed and good chunk of ‘never saw that coming’
    But like you alluded to, a game doesn’t have to be successful to be successful. Thanks again for including me on that one.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks for stopping by, “BF” 😉

      Thanks for playing~
      With luck and slower aging, hopefully we will get to play again someday, when the commute is shorter.

  2. Murderbunny says:

    I remember that game! It’s a shame I only played for a few sessions. I regret, a little, not having joined your gaming group on a regular basis. I probably would have had a better gaming experience, and not had un-learn some bad habits I had picked up from the group that I was a regular part of.

    Ah well. Hindsight is 20/20.

    I still struggle with the idea of Theme in a chronicle. A part of me feels pretentious if I decide to say, “This game is about FAITH” (or whatever), and a part of me feels that it’s very artificial to create people, places and things that revolve around one aspect or idea. Real life just doesn’t work that way. I understand the value of theme in narration, but it does clash with my sense of realism, so I don’t spend too much time thinking about it, worrying about it, and I just try to build the setting in a way that seems plausible.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Realism is what you make of it, isn’t it? Having the story elements, and certain traits emphasize a theme does not need to make people less realistic, it simply serves to make the story more navigable, potentially rewarding, and carry a potential value greater than the entertainment it generates at the time of play, and in the retelling afterward~

      I think this works with the show, don’t tell principle (which of course violates its own principle), in that the theme needs to be reflected in how things progress if it is to be a part of the story, but it can’t be a message thrust upon the characters. It is something which can be included to guide the players through an experience closer to what their characters might have, provide a thread of unity of understanding, and help cement the interconnectedness of otherwise unconnected stories or elements in the ongoing setting.

      Unless a game or story is intentionally constructed to be devoid of ‘human’ interaction and reaction experiences and is nothing more than ‘roll dice to loot basements successfully,’ or ‘survive massive onslaught of alien monstrosities by killing them first,’ I think the vast majority of GMs include themes of varying layers in their stories – typically unconsciously. I think we should make it a part of the actual process. By all means, create plausible settings and characters… but give them layers of purpose.

      If it feels pretentious to lay it out bluntly – and with a narrow focus like ‘faith,’ then that suggests to me that that kind of “arty” storytelling may not be a tool you have developed yet, or it might not be a flavour of storytelling you have, or perhaps will ever have, a taste for. I don’t think its all that necessary to defend not liking something, as you well know. Accept not liking it, and move on! 😉 While I personally love Heroic Pulp Action, and Swashbuckling, I have a very hard time keeping my predilections as a storyteller out of the narrative, and at this stage of my life, am fairly certain it will always be hard. That doesn’t keep me from trying to improve~

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