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Title: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: Will Grzanich on March 24, 2007, 07:59:56 AM




Hi all,
         
I’ve been meaning to write this post for some time now, and am only now getting around to it, because I am a lazy-ass slacker.  My apologies if my memory regarding the play session ends up failing me at certain points. :)

The game was Iron Heroes (http://www.montecook.com/cgi-bin/page.cgi?mpress_IL), a d20-based game very much like D&D, only with rare, dangerous magic, and not much at all in the way of magic items.  Very cool.  Anyway, our regular D&D DM needed a break, so I volunteered to GM this game for a few sessions.  I’d had the idea for an IH campaign set in ancient Sumer for some time, and was really digging on it, so I was nice and excited, and the others seemed into it as well.

We spent the first couple of sessions creating characters and talking about the setup for the game.  The players all created characters together during the first session, but it was mostly a situation of “quietly passing the player’s hanbook around and writing down stats,” as I’ve heard it described here before, which was Mistake #1.  Next time, I’ve got to get them talking more about who their characters are as a group; the stats can probably be done individually, for all it matters.  We did do some discussion of character background and personality together, but I felt like there wasn’t much flexibility there; people had created their characters, and they were telling the others about them, and that was that.  I want more openness, more ideas being thrown back and forth next time, before the players “finalize” the characters.

A side-effect of this was that the party ended up feeling like a pretty typical not-quite-dysfunctional D&D party: no real reason to want to stick together, although everyone did stick together, because none of the players wanted to be dicks.  I appreciate it, but I’d rather fix the problem at its source than make everyone herd their characters in the right direction against the characters’ will. 

[Side note: does finishing the stats for a character give a player the feeling of being “done” with the character, and therefore closed to suggestions and ideas regarding even the character’s stat-irrelevant details?]

The game setup discussion was more interesting, but fell a bit flat.  I was trying to approach it from the viewpoint of “let’s create Kickers for the party,” but it ended up being little more than a discussion of character and party background and history.  I didn’t realize this at the time.  Next time, I need to push for the creation of situation, rather than background.

Next came the prep phase.  I came up with a few NPCs, drew a little relationship map, and tried to work the PCs into it.  Since I was focused on the wrong part of the character-creation phase earlier, I didn’t have a really good handle on who the PCs were, so this was less than successful.  There was one shining moment, though.

We’d established that one of the PCs had been sort of a gladiator back in the day, a champion of his king.  I created another gladiator, a competing king’s champion, Uktannu, and decided that he was the only man to ever defeat the PC in combat.  Further, he did so by cheating (I can’t remember what he did, though, or if I’d even bothered to come up with anything past “cheating”).  I had tremendous fun role-playing this guy, as he and his cronies encountered the PCs in a drinking hall, mocking them and generally being a dick.  It worked like a charm to get the PCs (the ex-gladiator in particular) riled up.  (Special thanks to Chris Chinn for this – one of his blog posts advised that nothing gets players involved like NPCs doing extreme things and being assholes.  Awesome.)

I wanted this game to be more situation-driven than plot-driven, but failed miserably.  I wrote down “scenes” on notecards and taped them to my DM screen, which was a great idea, except that the “plot” of the game was still set; the PCs would have to go here, then there, and then almost certainly kick the big bad guy’s ass at the end.  I did have the enemy offer the PCs the opportunity to join him rather than fight him, but didn’t really expect them to bite.  A couple of the players did seem to consider it, which made me smile, but ultimately they beat the guy up, as expected.

Anyway, at the end of it all, we all had a good time.  I had a blast playing the dick NPCs, which I’ll have to remember – whether it was Uktannu mocking the PCs, or Enshunu (the big bad, Uktannu’s boss) offering the PCs power in exchange for giving into him, and then ordering his guards to execute a few innocent NPCs as the PCs declined his offer...fun.  The players also seemed to enjoy it all, but I was left feeling like the whole thing could have been so much more than it was.

So, that’s the run-down.  What I’d like from you guys is advice on the character-creation and situation-based play parts, which in some ways are very closely connected.  Here are my thoughts and questions:

I want situation-based play.  I want to be able to create a nice big relationship map and insert the PCs into it, and end up with some nice, dynamic, explosive situations.  I’ve read Ron’s old Art-Deco Melodrama threads in the Adept Press forum, and that’s exactly the sort of shit I want. 

But how do you get that with party-based play?  In games like Sorcerer, the player-characters don’t have to work together, but D&D and its ilk don’t have that same luxury.  If the party splits up, or if individual members of the party come into serious conflict with each other, then characters start dying, and the game rather falls apart.  Any ideas?

My own initial thoughts: treat the party as not only a handful of individuals to plug into the R-map, but also as a single unit that can be plugged into the map.  Get the players to come up with a strong reason for this party to exist, and make sure that the PCs’ individual situations don’t override the party’s overall situation when the two come into conflict.  What do you think?

Thanks, everyone, and apologies for the length of this post, as well as any rambling that I’ve done.  My writing skills are slowly but surely deteriorating as I age, it seems. :)

-Will


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: Callan S. on March 24, 2007, 12:39:25 PM
Hi Will,

Quote
But how do you get that with party-based play?  In games like Sorcerer, the player-characters don’t have to work together, but D&D and its ilk don’t have that same luxury.  If the party splits up, or if individual members of the party come into serious conflict with each other, then characters start dying, and the game rather falls apart.  Any ideas?
Think about dogs in the vineyard - if all the characters suddenly put their lives on the line in a conflict and lost - does the game rather fall apart?

Not at all - the reason they put their lives on the line serves as a final, conclusive statement about the whole events of the game. It's the end of the movie!

If you phrase the option of leaving the party in a 'what would you risk death for' way, then when players leave the party its for a significant reason, because they are dicing with death doing this. In fact it may be by and large a certainty - at this point when their about to leave, this is where you need to prompt them to make their statement (character and player), cause it's most likely going to be their last.


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: contracycle on March 26, 2007, 03:43:07 AM
I've had good success with obliging players to construct non-reciprocal dependancies between characters.  This is in effect a kind of R-map that organises the characters interactions just as an R-map normally organises interactions between NPC's.  This gives some structure to the hangin'-around-together-for-the-sake-of-it issue, it gives them something to talk about.  And when you pull on any link in the chain the others are necessarily affected to some degree.

I do agree that these discussions should be had before characters are formally created, it needs to be discussed while they are still being conceptualised.  Working through themechanics will force decisions and prioritiusations which concretise the character in the players mind; you need to have the group relationship worked out before hand so that it influences and informs the mechanical design.


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: Will Grzanich on March 26, 2007, 06:32:12 AM
Hi Callan,

You make a good point.  I think mostly I'm worried about my ability to balance encounters for too-small parties, but I'll have to deal with that anyway whenever someone can't make it to the game, so I probably shouldn't stress too much about it.  I am interested in hearing anyone's advice on situation-driven play with party-based games, though.  :)

Thanks again,

-Will


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: Will Grzanich on March 26, 2007, 06:39:43 AM
Hi contracycle,

I've had good success with obliging players to construct non-reciprocal dependancies between characters.  This is in effect a kind of R-map that organises the characters interactions just as an R-map normally organises interactions between NPC's.  This gives some structure to the hangin'-around-together-for-the-sake-of-it issue, it gives them something to talk about.  And when you pull on any link in the chain the others are necessarily affected to some degree.

This is a great idea; thanks for this.  :)  As it turns out, the guy who was DMing needs a break, so I'm going to start running a D&D game sooner than I thought! 

The focus of the game will be taking down an evil demigod who's got control of a decent-sized country and is hell-bent on world domination.  I'm talking Iuz (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iuz), if you're interested.  So I've asked the players to each come up with a personal link between his character and Iuz, so each character has a strong drive to take the bastard out.  Your idea above may help strengthen the party even further beyond sharing a common goal.

I do agree that these discussions should be had before characters are formally created, it needs to be discussed while they are still being conceptualised.  Working through themechanics will force decisions and prioritiusations which concretise the character in the players mind; you need to have the group relationship worked out before hand so that it influences and informs the mechanical design.

Oh, totally.  This was a big mistake on my part last time, and I'll not repeat it!  Stats can mostly be worked out solo, but the concepts and relationships need to be hashed out as a group.

Thanks again for the advice!

-Will


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: Ry on April 11, 2007, 05:46:36 PM
I've had good success with obliging players to construct non-reciprocal dependancies between characters. 

Can anyone expand on what is meant here by non-reciprocal dependencies?


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: Andrew Cooper on April 12, 2007, 07:32:04 AM
Ry,

I believe it means that Character A has a relationship with Character B without Character B having to take a reciprocal relationship in return.  Think about the Key of Unrequited Love in TSoY.  Just because a PC has that for another PC doesn't mean the second PC has any similar relationship at all.  If Contracycle means something else, he can explain it but that's how I read it.


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: Ry on April 12, 2007, 09:17:44 AM
So... wait, I'm trying to think of what examples of this would be.

Say I'm playing D&D with my buddy Consell, he's playing Calro, a rogue.  I'm playing Rynnic, a wizard.

What kind of non-reciprocal relationships can we have? 

Everything that springs to mind is
"I am angry at Calro because he borrowed my bicycle and broke it."
"I enjoy fishing with Calro."
"I trust Calro because we both survived a sinking ship together and spent 2 weeks on a rowboat eating conjured bread."

but those both define something about Consell's character.  Are they OK examples?


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: Andrew Cooper on April 12, 2007, 12:07:09 PM
Sure... those seem fine to me.  Almost anything can be a non-reciprocal relationship.  For example.

"Bob is my best friend."  -- Doesn't mean Bob considers you his best friend.  He might not even like you.
"I'm in love with Bob."    -- Same as above.
"I trust Bob implicitly."   --  Bob might not trust you at all.  He might be right not to trust you.


There's lots of stuff that can be done.  I mean, if a player takes "Bob is my brother." as a relationship but Bob's player doesn't take it back, that's fine.  It just means that the character being Bob's brother isn't all that important to Bob.

One thing I like to do in order to encourage players to take relationships with other PC's, NPC's and organizations is to tell them to choose their 3 most important relationships.  They then get a +2 to any roll that directly relates to that relationship.  The +2 is cumulative.  If a roll directly relates to all 3 relationships then they get a +6 to the roll.  They can change the relationships at any time but if they start just doing it all the time to milk the bonuses, feel free to impose a restriction like only changing them when they gain a level.


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: Ry on April 13, 2007, 01:36:35 PM
That clears it up, thanks.  I was caught up thinking non-reciprocal = says-nothing-about-other-character


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: contracycle on April 16, 2007, 08:32:40 AM
Sorry for not responding earlier.  Andrew has it pretty much correct as far as the non-reciprocality works.  This is to prevent the situation in which two players construct mutual relationships that effectively insulate them from the rest of the group.  Family relationships like brotherhood are a good example of this - if 2 players created characters as brothers in a 4-player game they are effectively creating a group within a group, because it is reasonable to expect that the bond between brothers supercedes that between acquaintances.

This whole idea is aimed less at saying something about the characters than it is about managing the interactions of the players.  We want the players to have some reason to interact so that when A has a problem, that player knows how and why and on what terms to approach B for help.  But as will all elements of character conceptualisation, you will end up saying something about the character regardless.

Thus although I had never quit thought of splitting a brotherhood in the manner that Andrew proposes, I fully agree that would work perfectly.  You could perhaps have a situation in which a younger brother idolises anolder brother, and therefore has the dependency which is not reciprocated; or an older brother who protects a younger, but secretly the younger despises him for some childhood incident and hence does not reciprocate.

The other element was dependancy, there should be something about the relationship that is not easy to cast off.  This is to prevent the relationships simply disapearing in play beneath the players mutual familiarity.  So of the three propositions for Calro and Rynnic,I think only the third would really be useful.  The essence of the matter is that the wizard, by wizardly means, saved the rogues life,and now the rogue owes the wizard bigtime.  Thus when the wizard needs to go on some absurdly dangerous quest he can easily drag the rogue along, as payment for past debts.  Furthermore, this is all good stuff for an on-screen discussion in which the characters actually talk to one another, which IMO can often be lost in the sorta "habitual party" mode.

Lastly, these are not necessarily intended to be permanent.  The characters relationships will grow and develop as they experience events, interact with one another, develop real in play reasons to trust, approve of, like one another - or not.  But I think inter-character relationships benefit from being jump-started via some explicit mechanism in order to overcome the initial awkwardness of having in particular to say to one another.  If the dependencies are working well then keep them, but if the characters outgrow them they should be discarded.


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: AJ_Flowers on April 26, 2007, 11:44:44 AM
This is along different lines from what's been mentioned so far, but, it seems like when you talk about the problems with having PCs in conflict with one another as opposed to working together, one of your big issues there is littering the game with the bodies of dead characters.

What happens to the game if you change the mechanic for death, in this case?  Would making it much harder for people to actually kill others in the game promote more experimentation along these lines? What about making the game much deadlier and easier to kill others - then do you get experiments along these lines?


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: Andrew Cooper on May 01, 2007, 12:47:29 PM
AJ,

Making death more difficult to achieve would help a little I'm sure but I think the biggest issue with PC's in conflict and a high body count is actually the system (d20 in this case) itself.  In my experience players will tend to use whatever method gets the most effective mechanical support to resolve conflicts, between PC's or otherwise.  In d20 the method that gets the most mechanical support is combat (spellcasting included).  Thus players will tend to utilized combat to resolve conflicts.  In a system like The Shadow of Yesterday, non-combat options are just as effective as combat and so I don't see the problem with PC's dying left and right when they come into conflict like I do in D&D.

So, making death more difficult might draw out the conflicts more but I doubt it'd do too much to alleviate the problem.  To do that you would need to ramp up (or tack on) some of the other systems to give them equal weight with the combat rules.  Not at all easy with d20 given how effective and fun the combat rules are.


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: contracycle on May 03, 2007, 06:08:19 AM
Nah.  My problem is that I have been been player and GM in games that amounted to the characters hanging around in a building like some sorta dropout hippy colony doing nothing but verbally sniping at one another.  This soap-opera nonsense unfortunately becomes an impediment to the characters working together later, all the you-saids and but-I-thoughts and so forth.

If disputes reach the point of character death, which has happened in my games unfortunately, I think that under most circumstances the game is toast and unrecoverable.  Eliminating death as such does not, IME, make any difference, becuase the issue is not the fact that they may injure one another, it is the fact that they are developing antagonisms amongst themselves.  They will instead devote themselves to ruining ont another financially or imprisoning each other in magical hecatombs miles beneath the earth - whatever tool is available will be employed.

I actually don't have any problem as such with characters injuring or killing one another if it could be conducted in the right way.  The main problem IMO is that, in most systems the winning character does so under the spotlight and in the full flow of the action.  Which means that the losing character does not have spotlight or focus, and their death becomes squalid and minor, they are rendered into a spear-carrier in the victorious characters story.  This is as opposed to when a character is killed by me-the-GM; if this happens I can immediately switch narration to centre on the dying character, contextualise it and reinforce some greater significance or meaning.  I can make the death more than merely mechanical, but also heroic or noble.  In inter-player conflict this mediatory power is removed; a characters death can never be other than bitter and a loss.

But I am keen to see games that might utilise inter-player conflict, harness it into a creative engine.  The problems I outline above are all practical ones, I am confident there must be ways by which they can be solved.


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: Ry on May 03, 2007, 06:33:24 AM
I find that D&D/d20-derived rulesets encourage (and work best with) comeraderie among the group, and that sounds more like what Will was talking about.  So while I'm interested in how player conflict can drive a story, I think if we're talking about d20-like games we should focus on Will's suggestion:

Quote
treat the party as not only a handful of individuals to plug into the R-map, but also as a single unit that can be plugged into the map.  Get the players to come up with a strong reason for this party to exist, and make sure that the PCs’ individual situations don’t override the party’s overall situation when the two come into conflict.  What do you think?

I'd love to see more treatment on how to pull this off, which I think has three problems attached to it.

1.  How do you construct a situation that can both connect to a party but also allow it to remain unified.
2.  Constructing a concept of "party" that doesn't pigeonhole player characters.
3.  Constructing characters that both fit in the party and relate to the situation. 


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: Ry on May 04, 2007, 04:59:31 AM
Last night I had a sweet find in one of the boxes in my storage locker:  A Saga Companion (the dragonlance 5th age card-based thing).  Anyway, it's got a great chapter of background story stuff... things like "A relative or friend that was close to your hero recently went missing, and your hero is concerned about them."  There's about 100 of these (82, really, because of Saga's wacky deck) - and yeah, I know that there's a lot of different resources with similar background material.

But what I realized was that if I make things like this relate to more than one PC at once, it will nicely weave the party together AND provide impetus for adventure.  So I can have players roll for this table and then work out as a group how at least two of them relate to it.


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: contracycle on May 05, 2007, 04:53:20 AM
Thats sounds like a really good idea, although my reflex is to suggest that players be obliged to make two different reasons, but perhaps thats not really important. Anyway I agree that aiming to "hook two", rather than aiming specifically one character, seems like a good idea to me.


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: Ry on May 05, 2007, 04:57:49 AM
Yeah, that was what I was thinking, but wasn't clear:  One player has a missing relative, the other has some other hook to the missing relative plot.


Title: Re: [d20 Iron Heroes] Situation-driven, party-based play?
Post by: RPL on May 09, 2007, 04:19:18 AM
Hi, I think that my experience my contribute something to this but I may also be off the mark.

I just recently started my very first D&D Campaign as a GM using the Dark Sun setting. Since I wanted to experiment the whole "here's an adventure brave heroes, go do something about it" D&D seemed like the perfect system for it, however I also something more from the context of said adventures in a way that the PCs would have a more invested interest in them than just killing random things, even if it's just for Colors sake.

So for that purpose I have the player build a relationship map for them selves, where they would have between 1 and 2 things that they would have, they would have some sort of relationship with and that they loved (yeah, this was unashamedly stolen from Hero's Banner). Then I would randomly pick one relationship from every PC and connect them in order to have the elements for the adventure.

This way I hope to turn the generic, Kill The Dragon / Save The Princess into Kill The Dragon That Destroyed Your Village and Save Your Long Lost Sister.

And this way every PC has something that hooks them into the Adventure Of The Week.

However I should warn that this is more Adventure-driven than Situation-driven style of play. I intend to write a full AP after we complet our first adventure with the results of this experience.

I also was lucky enough to get players that are interested in being more than just a random party, so they all have built in elements that they are related to: The Paladin is in love with the Cleric, the Mind Blade is the long time partner in crime of the Rogue who was sent to kill the Paladin before he was one - because of a debt he owed - and became impressed by his transformation and decided to join up with him. So cool stuff, but this ground was already covered in the posts above so it's in here just for reference.

Hope it helps.


Diogo Curado