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Author Topic: The sniper takes aim at my guy's head...  (Read 4276 times)
Rich Forest

Posts: 226

« on: November 07, 2003, 09:54:46 AM »

Over in Indie Design, Ben Lehman is working on a cool idea he’s calling The Tactics Project. He’s described his goals for it like this:
Quote from: Ben Lehman
The real key is getting the players to understand that they are setting up the challenge for themselves and then trying to take it on. I think of this as "look ma, no hands" Gamism -- the goal is to prove how cool you are by showing what level of difficulty you can take on.

In talking about it, I brought up something in passing that he’s encouraged me to share more about, so I’m doing that here in order to not fill up his design thread too much.  It’s heavily based on actual play, but I hope it will reveal something useful to his game design or our understanding of gamist play.    

Quote from:
Quote from: I

This sets up, I think, a situation that is rife with “step on up” opportunities.  And I think players will eat it up.  I know in my group, we’ve long been in the habit of playing groups of antagonists who are observing and opposed to the PCs.  As GM, I’ve seen my players put their characters in a kind of danger that I wouldn’t dare put them in, stuff like having an NPC sniper target their own unwitting character’s head.  Then, somehow, they wriggle out of danger, often inadvertently (obviously, inadvertently for the character, but quite intentional on the part of the player).

BL>  Interesting.  I would love it if you would post more about this social dynamic (either in this thread or in RPG Theory.)  These sorts of social situations are a good chunk of what I am trying to engender.

So now I’ve been thinking about my play group and the dynamic that has lead to them putting themselves in danger and then trying to pull out of it in interesting ways.  It really developed quite by accident.  I think it originally arose when we played an Ars Magica covenant’s first adventure.  We set up a really old winter covenant with mysterious ancient wizards who’d retreated so completely that the grogs around the castle hadn’t seen them for almost a generation and had just gone on with life.  The new PCs were young wizards who had come to help revive the covenant, at the bequest of one of the apprentices to one of the old wizards.  Now anyone familiar with Ars Magica knows that in that game, troupe-style play is a big deal.  The players each have a couple dedicated characters, but they share the rest of the soldiers and other types who make the covenant run on a day to day basis.  In our set-up, we each made one new magus, one companion, and one of the ueber-mages, then a few of us sat down and made up bunches of grogs (everybody else).  In the process of creating the grogs, we created a few power groups.  One group of grogs remained loyal to the wizards, even though they hadn’t seen them in so long.  One group had gone religious and decided that these diabolical, demon-worshipping wizards had to be dealt with.  One group, if I remember, was a bunch of demon-worshipping diabolists who wanted to steal the wizards’ power or something.  And on the night the PC wizards arrived at the covenant, everyone was thrown into action.  The diabolists entered to kill and loot.  The zealots entered to cleanse the castle.  The loyal grogs entered to protect their lords.  And the PC magi were stuck right in the middle.  We cut from group to group, with the players running each group.  There were no NPCs, essentially.  Much blood was shed on all sides, and no power group came out of the mess untouched.  My own PC mage survived only by bluffing long enough to get into a position to cast some crazy magic, and it was a close call.  Another one of the players, using a mere panicked grog, managed to kill his own ueber-mage by pushing him down the castle’s central stairwell.  

After that, I just kept incorporating these kinds of situations into games.  I’ve done it the most times in Street Fighter: the Storytelling Game.  Here, I think, the game rules had an important part in just how the play turned out, and I’ll get into that in a minute.  We had a running set of encounters with the “Special Snake Team,” an elite commando force of the PRC that was named/inspired by Solid Snake of Metal Gear Solid, and that featured members with names like “Red Snake,” “Murder Snake,” “Shadow Snake,” and “the People’s Snake.”  You get the idea.  Various “Special Snake Teams” almost killed our heroes numerous times, but never succeeded.  At other times, groups of Japanese Yin/Yang and demon summoning sorcerers plagued the heroes, and all manner of thugs, ruffians, and assassins.  Each group played by the players themselves.  In every case, the players showed remarkable willingness to put their own primary PCs, or those of their fellow players, in mortal danger.  Just to take the risk.  The PCs, highly capable martial artists, were often oblivious to the dangers they were in.  They might be walking down the street, chit-chatting about tourist attractions in Shanghai, all while a team of assassins was secretly ransacking their rooms or targeting their heads.  But when the action really kicked in, when (or if) the PCs really threw down with their assailants, they always came out on top.  

Now to understand how this happened, perhaps its important to understand a few key things about the mechanics of Street Fighter.  1) The PCs are tough—they’re really powerful compared to thugs or normal folks.  Thugs have a good advantage over normal people, Spec Ops level characters have it over Thugs, and PCs have it over all of them, and that’s even as starting characters.  Once PCs get some experience and begin to approach World Warrior status, they are really powerful.  2) While they are tremendously skilled martial artists, the PCs tend not to be skilled in anything else.  They start out with few skill points, and in our play of the game skills were rarely increased because it is so important to spend every XP on combat/martial arts related abilities.  The combination of these two factors meant that a group of highly skilled "NPC" special forces characters could sneak around, gather info on, and generally just out-do PCs in many situations… but if the PCs caught them and could face them in a fair fight, there was no contest.  The players pushed that all the way to its limits, using these "NPCs" to target their own PCs for death and then watching as the PCs got out of it.  It seemed like the question was, “Just how close can I bring our PCs (or even better, "my guy") to danger without destroying them.”  

Now, what about the social aspects that supported this in play?  I guess one thing is that at least a couple players in the group (and one in particular) have a very high tolerance for risk.  One of my friends, when I proposed updating from the wonky botch-happy die system of original Storyteller mechanics to the later revised versions, made a strong (and successful) case for keeping the original system because those botches were interesting.  He liked the added uncertainty and risk that they kept in the game.  As another example, he and another friend (also a player in the group) used to play Magic and ante up card after card after card until they each had at least one really valuable card at risk for each game.  They’d lay down a card, and someone would say, “one more?”  The other would nod and they'd each ante another card.  “One more?” Again. “One more?” and again and again.  The same thing happened in our the RPG sessions, I think, to an extent.  Even knowing the way the botch rules worked, players routinely had their characters do dangerous things like jumping out of airplanes without parachutes to catch the bad guy who was wearing one.  And yes, aimed sniper rifles at their own characters’ heads.  So to that extent, I think part of the reason this kind of play developed in our group was inspiration.  Everyone was open to it, and a couple key people inspired it to greater and greater heights.

Now, how can this kind of dynamic be engendered by an RPG?  This was Ben’s original question as it relates to the design of The Tactics Project, and I’m not sure I’ve done much to answer it.  In our group it was partially supported by the game systems, as noted above, and partially driven by the inspirational example provided by the most adventurous players.  (I’ll have to see if any of my players have anything to add to this—maybe they can shine some light on it as well.)  Has anyone else had similar experiences?  What elements of the game supported them?  To what extent is this playing out on the level of the group social dynamic, and on what level might it be coming from the game system?  

I even wonder: Is telling that in my group, we've played this way most strikingly in Ars Magica and Street Fighter, both games where the core PCs are remarkably powerful in some ways but limited in others?  

Ron Edwards
Global Moderator
Posts: 16490

« Reply #1 on: November 07, 2003, 10:15:45 AM »

Hi Rich,

Two little neurons went "zap" and I remembered this thread: Getting started, which addresses this or at least a very similar issue, specific to the (then called) Hero Wars rules. If you'll forgive me the rather embarassing first few posts, then the discussion kicks in about halfway down the first page.

Ben Lehman

Posts: 2094


« Reply #2 on: November 07, 2003, 12:52:17 PM »

Thanks for posting this.  I'll give a more substantive reply in a few days.

But, wow!  Someone else played Street Fighter.  My favorite White Wolf game ever.  The combat really felt like a Street Fighter video game match to me, which was cool, as I was at the time a reasonably accomplished SF2 player.


Emily Care

Posts: 1126

« Reply #3 on: November 07, 2003, 04:18:25 PM »

Hi Rich!

Quote from: You
In our set-up, we each made one new magus, one companion, and one of the ueber-mages, then a few of us sat down and made up bunches of grogs (everybody else).  In the process of creating the grogs, we created a few power groups.... And on the night the PC wizards arrived at the covenant, everyone was thrown into action....We cut from group to group, with the players running each group.  There were no NPCs, essentially.  Much blood was shed on all sides, and no power group came out of the mess untouched.  

Way cool.  Since the players had themselves created the characters who had conflicting agendas, they were invested in seeing it play out as it would.  Having multiple characters may help one step more into author stance since you don't have all your narrative eggs in one basket, and also you are constantly looking at a situation from more than one perspective--it gives distance.   And, of course, your players were above average in their risk tolerance, from your descriptions.

I don't think it's a coincidence that my play group sets up challenge for ourselves and eachother and our baseline system is Ars Magica, too. The troupe-style play is a great stepping stone to encouraging all players to have more creative  input.  How did your players direct their antagonists in Street Fighter? Did they play the powerful NPC's, or just think up juicy ways for their primary characters to get skronked?

Thanks for writing about this. It's near and dear to my heart too. Whew--I'm not crazy for thinking this is possible! ; )


Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games
Rich Forest

Posts: 226

« Reply #4 on: November 08, 2003, 06:20:46 AM »

That’s an interesting thread, Ron--are those some of the early thoughts on IIEE stuff that I see developing in there?  (It’s also interesting to me that the thread is a Hero Wars discussion.  Even though it will probably be quite a different animal mechanically, I’ve been thinking about Hero Wars bidding mechanics in my responses to Ben’s game design of Tactics.)  You know, I see some parallels in the ideas in that thread with things we’ve done in Ars Magica and Street Fighter.  The difference is that the discussion in the thread goes further in putting some of the scene cutting choices in the hands of the players.  This is something I like, but a possibility that we hadn’t come across at the time of our play.  
Which is a good transition to trying to answer Emily’s questions about how we actually used this stuff in our play of Street Fighter.  In Street Fighter, we didn’t share much troupe-style character creation stuff like we had in Ars Magica, partially because it just wasn’t an assumption of the game, I think, and partially because of the work involved in statting up more than the most inexperienced of characters.  

There was also major split between how we handled antagonist NPCs in “adventure-oriented” sessions and “tournament-oriented” sessions.  In adventure-oriented sessions, I created these NPCs as part of my GM-prep and handed them over the players at the point of the first cut scene.  These NPCs were identical in game combat stat terms, to save prep time, and I didn't set up their non-combat ability scores.  Other than combat,  they were usually only differentiated by their names and roles in the enemy group.  So for example, I might give one player an index card that reads, “Red Snake, Special Snake Team Leader.”  Another might get “Shadow Snake, Special Snake Team Espionage Expert,” etc.  The combat stat blocks were on the backs of the cards, or I would type them up once in the computer and print out copies for each player.  

During play, whenever a non-combat related check was called for, the players simply made up the NPCs stats on the spot.  Storyteller dice pools are essentially on a scale of 1-10, so the player just decided how many dice to roll, on a scale of 1-10, for the characters.  If it was within the character's specialty area, players tended to roll pools of seven or eight dice, I think.  Outside the specialty area, four or so.  I’m honestly not sure how they estimated it, come to think about it, and I’m sure different people rolled different pools of dice.  I didn’t care how many dice they were rolling—I just let them roll and tell me how many successes they’d achieved.  They were working against their own characters, after all :-)  Major antagonists, on the other hand, I just played.  As far as scene cutting and stance were concerned, the players were mostly moving between author and actor stance for their PCs and their controlled NPCs.  I did all the scene cutting, and I did all the typical GM Director stance type stuff.  

This functioned differently in “Tournament-oriented” sessions.  These typically included lots of tournament combats as fighters worked their way up to see who won the tournament, with intermittent character socialization at the bar or investigation of mysterious happenings around the tournament going on.  In these sessions, I quickly became aware that the 16 and 32 fighter tournaments we were running could get boring very quickly for players whose characters weren’t fighting at the moment.  We were not running teams through tournaments—rather we were running individual matches and the PCs often met and faced each other at some point in the tournaments, and fought to see who would win.  We were never satisfied, especially for important tournaments, with me just deciding via GM-fiat the results of tournament clashes between two NPCs, so we began to run all the matches.  I’d say, “Ok, Fei Long is slated to take on Ryu in the next bracked of the tournament.  Who wants to run Fei Long and who wants Ryu?”  And people would volunteer and run the matches.  We extended this to PC versus NPC matches very quickly, and to interesting effect.  It occurred to me that when players were running NPCs against the characters of other players, they were trying very hard to win.  They were not pulling any punches or throwing matches the way I’d been taught I should sometimes do by too many “Golden Rule” speeches in various RPGs.  The players were out to win.  No quarter was asked or given, and the winning character of the tournament was the one who had won all the battles to that point.  

It was instrumental in re-teaching me how to run NPCs in our Street Fighter games.  

Eventually, I was not running NPCs in tournament combat any more often than anyone else.  I was responsible, for the most part, for the NPC stats, however, and I tried my best to make them very close to the PCs in power level.  But I also did my best to create the most challenging characters I could who had similar power levels to those of the characters.  Of course, I did this without inventing newer, more powerful special maneuvers or abilities.  It was important that the character operated within the same framework of rules and choices as the PCs.  I then let the characters loose in the tournaments with the players in charge of actually running them.  Occasionally, players would also stat up NPCs in their spare time, and I would introduce them to tournaments as well.  This was rarer than I would have liked because it’s a lot of work to make the characters, and because it also lead to some interesting events in play.  In a very early game, for example, one of the players created the NPC that eventually knocked his own PC out of the tournament.  After the match, his character approached this character and befriended him, and the characters remained allies for the rest of the campaign.  

In talking about it with one of my friends who was playing in the game, he did some self-analysis and said that in all these cases, whether running NPC antagonists in adventure-oriented sessions or running NPC fighters in tournament-oriented sessions, he wanted the character he was playing at that moment to win.  He was not concerned about whether his core PC, the “hero” of the game, won, as much as he was invested in winning with whatever character he was running at the moment.  I can think of no better example that supports the distinction that “Step on Up” operates at the real person, player level.  

BTW, Ben, we were (ok, are.  are.) also fans of the video games as well as the RPG.  We usually met for our RPG sessions early and played one of the Street Fighter video games for a while before starting our RPG play--sometimes we would play the video game for hours before roleplaying.  It was a great way to get in the right mood for a game.

Paul Czege
Acts of Evil Playtesters

Posts: 2341

« Reply #5 on: November 08, 2003, 01:20:35 PM »

Hey Rich,

As far as scene cutting and stance were concerned, the players were mostly moving between author and actor stance for their PCs and their controlled NPCs. I did all the scene cutting, and I did all the typical GM Director stance type stuff.

Have you read my Chalk Outlines playtest report, http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=1167">how we played Chalk Outlines? The experience taught me that it can be pretty deprotagonizing for a character if the player is both framing scenes (creating the conflict) and narrating the outcomes of those scenes (with maybe Pool-style Monologue of Victory mechanics). So, I guess I'm just recommending you not stray too far from the stance and power formula you've described as you move forward with system development...because what you've got sounds like a blast, and I can imagine it maybe getting messy if you were to include, say, a mechanic that provided occasional player scene framing.


My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans
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