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Author Topic: Backstory Revisited  (Read 6510 times)
jburneko
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« on: November 26, 2002, 10:46:41 AM »

This thread is part of my on going quest to become comfortable in distinguishing between "meaningful choice" and "railroading", "bang" and "random encounter" from a Narrativist and particularly Sorcerer perspective.  This thread is one of those thinking out loud threads I'm prone to.   So, while I may not have a specific question in mind, I'm looking for feedback on my thoughts and how they relate to Sorcerer and Sorcerer & Sword.

I've been browsing through some old 2nd Edition D&D modules for Ravenloft and I was suddenly reminded why I love Ravenloft.  I love Ravenloft because it tries so very very very hard NOT to be a D&D setting.  Forgotten Realms seems to either be about politics or archeaology.  Greyhawk seems to be about nothing at all.  Ravenloft, on the other hand is all about real, here and now, human emotion gone horribly horribly wrong.

This element really really shows in the structure of some of the better modules.  A lot of these modules seem to start with a Sorcerer-style backstory and then layer a D&D-style adventure on top of it.  And even then some of the "encounters" could be bangs if you threw out all the text with tips and tricks for the GM to insure the "necessary" outcome for the rest of the module to work.

The module I just read is called Night of the Walking Dead.  If you're interested it is downloadable for free (legally) off of the Official Ravenloft Website.  The backstory for the module goes something like this.

There were three brothers who owned and tended to their family's plantation.  The two eldest were named Jean and Marcel.  The younger was barely fifteen and was named Luc.

One day a group of gypsies came to town and one of them told Marcel about a scroll that contained a prophesy fore telling of a great cataclysim.  Marcel gets it into his head that this scroll might contain the secret to unlocking great untold power and begins to search for this scroll.  Over the years his younger brother Luc becomes sympathetic and begins to aid his brother in his search.

One day the two consult another band of gypsies who give them a vital clue to the where abouts of the scroll.  The clue turns out to be genuine and Marcel and Luc discover a secret place in the cemetary right in the village where their plantation is located.  They find the scroll but as soon as Luc is done reading it from it outloud, an ancient undead that was guarding the scroll appears and kills Marcel.  Luc's mind is shattered by witnessing this event and is only capable of speaking jumbled incoherent versions of the verse written on the scroll.

When his brothers do not return Jean sets out to look for them and comes across the body of his twin and the jibbering body of Luc.  In a panic Jean takes the body of Marcel to the local Shaman who attempts to bring Marcel back from the dead but it fails.  In a maddened rage Jean takes Marcel's body back to the plantation leaving Luc in the Shaman's care.  At the plantation Marcel comes back as a twisted undead monster capable of controlling other undead.  Marcel is STILL driven to find the scroll.

Jean, however, lies about having found the scroll.  He hides the scroll and claims to be aiding his brother in the seach.  He does this hoping to indefinitely appease his brother and hold back this situation of escalating and further.  The only catch is that Jean must routinely murder villagers and bring them back to Marcel to add to his growing undead army.  Better a few villagers than the whole world and all that.

And that's the state of affairs at the top of the adventure.  From there the module lays on a straight forward pre-planned scene driven adventure.  First the player's discover the jibbering Luc in the Shaman's care.  Then there are a series of scenes leading up to the revelation and defeat of Jean.  Then another series leading up to the revelation and defeat of Marcel.  End of Adventure.

Now, it seems to me with a little tweaking this a PERFECT Sorcerer-style backstory.  We have four NPCs intimately involved.  The Shamen is covering up his suspicions of who is doing the murders and is keeping Luc sheltered and hidden.  Luc is an innocent turned raving madman by the actions of his power hungry brother.  Jean is a sorcerer bound to the demon (Desire: To Find The Scroll or maybe more generally Power, Need: Fresh Dead Bodies) his undead brother has become.

My question is, do you think my instincts are right?  Or is there something about this situation that is to inherently too D&Dish?

My doubts:

1) It suffers from my original concerns about some of the Trollbabe scenarios.  It's OBVIOUS that Luc needs help.  It's OBVIOUS that Jean and Marcel must be stopped.  It feels like even though the actual adventure sequence of events has been stripped out that the adventure would turn out much like that anyway.

2) It feels too tight and localized to accomadate a variety of potential kickers.  In a Swords and Socerery environment where so much is tight and localized how much "influence" over the Kickers is acceptable.  For example, I could see this scenario working if the GM says, "The scenario I'm thinking about takes place in a bayou located village."  (I.E. Eliminating Kickers like, "So, I'm out at sea, when..."

Thoughts?

Jesse
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greyorm
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« Reply #1 on: November 26, 2002, 12:05:35 PM »

I know the module, I ran my high-school group through part of it at one time.

Here's the thing I don't get, though...why is it obvious?

I think you're injecting D&D ride-into-town-and-solve-all-the-problems morality, or even real-life moral concerns, into the scenario...ie: of COURSE you HAVE to do this, because it is the RIGHT thing to do.

The players don't have to help Luc. They can leave him an insane, babbling mess if they want...it's not the nicest thing to do, but the sorcerers may not be the nicest men in the world. Or let's take this a step further, the players can help Luc, but for any of a number of wildly varying reasons: suppose they discover Luc actually knows something about this scroll they are pursuing, so they use him for that info. Suppose they go the good-guys-in-white-hats route and try to mend Luc's mind because its just the right thing to do...suppose they discover the scroll in the midst of this action?

Likewise, the players do not have to stop Jean and Marcel. They might just leave that up to the local authorities, or take care of it as a side issue (not necessarily because they feel the need to do so), in their quest for the scroll, or to help Luc. The players might be in it to get the scroll for themselves and take control of the hordes of undead, or as part of a larger story-arc.

Also, I think this idea about Trollbabe came up before: that is, someone complained that the scenarios were structured specifically for certain outcomes, that the Stakes and what needed to be done were obvious at the start (anyone have a thread URL for that, I can't find it).

Quote
It feels too tight and localized to accomadate a variety of potential kickers.(I.E. Eliminating Kickers like, "So, I'm out at sea, when...")


{kicks Jesse in the butt}
Jesse, I think you've slipped into traditional gaming mode, and completely skipped over the biggest, most relevant bit to this question: Sorcerer is about the Kickers, not about adventure scenarios.

The players are in charge of the scenario, not the GM. The GM doesn't get to "write an adventure" for the players, as is traditional with most role-playing games, the GM has to facillitate exploration of the player's Kickers...in other words, the players get to write the adventure and the GM is along for the ride.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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Christopher Kubasik
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« Reply #2 on: November 27, 2002, 04:20:33 PM »

Hi Jesse,

In keeping with the open ended nature of your post, here's an open ended reply, working off the top of my head:

1)  First, the backstory read like a Sorcerer adventure to me, played out, and reported, perhaps, in actual play.  Make of that what you will.

2) To use the backstory for Sorcerer, you'd use the NPCs from the "backstory" as the Relationship Map.  Yes?

The only issue then is this idea of this leading to any sort of conclusion/confrontation/whatnot.  Until you had Kicker in place, and thne saw how it played out you couldn't know anything.

So it sounds to me like you could strip-mine this module from an R-Map (instead of using a detective novel), to help build the "feel" you wanted.  (You're obviously drawn to all these Ravenloft things; so that sounds cool.)  But then you'd have to do that weird Jazz-trust thing and play it out with the players to see what you get.

Sounds cool, though, if only because you are so excited about the material.

Take care,
Christopher
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"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
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Clay
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« Reply #3 on: November 27, 2002, 08:30:43 PM »

Jesse,

Good to hear that you're inspired.  I'll chime in and say that I don't think the outcome is a foregone conclusion either.  Given just the setup, without the scenes plotted out, I'd say that my normal players would be inclined to leave the madman be, since there's nothing they can do for him.  They would be very inclined to seek the scroll themselves, either to curtail the ambitions of the two brothers, or to use it for their own nefarious ends.

To take full advantage of the material, you might consider using the scenes as potential encounters, although don't expect the relationships presented to match those that play out.  My players continually surprise me by who they choose for their allies.
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Clay Dowling
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: December 06, 2002, 02:32:58 PM »

So, Jesse,

Any clearer? I agree fully with what's been said already and don't have much to add. It remains completely mysterious to me why you think that the route for players to take is obvious.

Unless there's a more specific question you can frame ...

Best,
Ron
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jburneko
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Posts: 1351


« Reply #5 on: December 06, 2002, 03:29:38 PM »

I've been meaning to come back to this thread for a while but have been having trouble finding the words.

I think I'm prepared to drop the morallity issue.  I've been thinking about this for a while and I've come to realize that my problem with the morality issue isn't one concerning the nature of the scenario itself but with the behavioral tendencies of gamers, and specifically a few of my players.

A lot of my players, who are also mostly my close friends, all share something in common: A general outrage at the purvasive problem of kneejerk emotional reactions born of ignorance that permeates our modern society.  This ranges from global subjects like religion and politics all the way down to minor things like the fact that the girl who works at my local Blockbuster has never heard of H.G. Wells nor his novel "The Island of Doctor Moreau" made three times as a film.  This is, of course, related to my pet peeve about people who do not put in a concerted effort to educate themselves about things they do not understand and likewise people who are unwilling to put in an effort to explain things to those who do not understand.  This we all share.  This is one of the many reasons why we are friends.

The problem comes in how we choose to use that frustration as a creative motive.  I like to relish in it, thus my passion for what I consider to be "Gothic" Litterature.  These are stories of emotional insanity.  Tales about people with noble (and sometimes ignoble) intentions whose fear and ignoranace lead them to do frighteningly terrible things like pretending their wives doesn't exist, murdering their only sons, and raping their sisters all because they THINK their sons are possessed by evil spirits or some such.  In these stories either these people come to their senses and redeem themselves at the last possible moment, or they go over the edge and come to some horrible end of their own making.  All the while I get to sit back and smile knowing that evil, will out and all that.

Christopher NAILED this concept in our game together and I will treasure that story to my dying day.

My PLAYERS however, like to use roleplaying to escape the horrible realities of an ignorant and irrational world.  They use it as a way to demonstrate the way people should behave in situations of crisis and conflict.  Thus if it becomes clear that their sons might be possessed by an evil spirit their action is not to cast the heathens out or even to beg these demon children to grant them some of their dark powers, but rather to conduct a long series of rather dull scientific experiments to determine IF the sons are truly possessed and if so, what goals and motives these spirits hold before making any hasty and irrational decisions.

Trollbabe Example: Before just out and out killing some bard who claimed they were reincarnations of old foes, my players would want to consult some oracles and do some research to find out if the bard's claim is true or not before decideding what to do about the bard.

So if the Premise of my Gothic Game can be considered: How do you deal with emotional insanity?

Their answer is consistently the same: With method, order and scientific conduct.

My solution has been thus far to present them with ever increasingly bleak and morally grey scenarios with lose-lose outcomes to FORCE them to choose and do something interesting.  Which is, of course, exhausting with dead end outcomes.

So lately, I've been trying to figure out how to GM the "rational hero" in such a way that the results are still fast paced and exciting and do not devolve into long, drawn out, endless periods of investigative work trying to determine what the right and rational thing to do is.

I haven't lost sight of the fact that Sorcerer games are supposed to be about and focus on the conflict presented in the character's kicker.  I'm just still having issues with how I orient the kicker with respect to the backstory and bangs such that the result is not these long drawn out "quests for the objective birds eye view of the situation before action" that my games sometimes (I admit, thankfully, not always) devolve into.

Whew.  That was probably a bit ranty, but sometimes I just need to say these things.

Jesse
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #6 on: December 07, 2002, 08:52:52 AM »

Hi Jesse,

OK ... so do I correctly infer that your real issue doesn't have anything to do with the material in the first post? I don't see the connection between the issue raised there - "the players see the obvious thing is ..." - and your frustration with their preferred way of dealing with conflict.

Perhaps a game which favors birds-eye-view tactics is what they'd prefer. Sorcerer, I'm afraid, doesn't - the way I play demons and Humanity challenges, for instance, would probably find such player-characters in exceptionally bad circumstances within a couple of sessions, which I gather these players wouldn't appreciate.

Best,
Ron
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jburneko
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Posts: 1351


« Reply #7 on: December 07, 2002, 10:46:00 AM »

Hey Ron,

Yeah, I think things got pretty well covered.  My above post exagerated the point just a bit.  As I said, it doesn't ALWAYS happen but it seems to happen about once durring any scenario of sufficient length and complexity and I'm trying to figure out what I'm doing that triggers that behavior.

Funny, now that I think about it, the one time it didn't happen was in the Space-Western game and that's the one time I didn't go out of my way to make things morally bleak.  I just said, "Fuck it, here are 3 NPCs from the PC's Kickers.  Here's a McGuffin they all want.  Go!"

So yeah, I think, on the plane of Obvious Morality I was confusing Nature of the Backstory with some behavior on the part of players or me as a GM.  I just needed to hash that out, outloud.

Let me ask this, which is related to the second part of my post, durring a Sorcerer & Sword or even a Trollbabe game, how often do you find yourself running litterally seperate scenarios for each player?  By seperate scenarios I mean no immediate, outset connection between NPCs or global situation.  I ask because my second problem with the presented backstory feels too small to accomadate four players with four different kickers.  There aren't enough attachment points.

To put it another way, from reading the souce material (Howard, Lieber, Smith) the above backstory feels perfect for a Sorcerer & Sword game, but not one with MULTIPLE protagonists, examples of which are not abundent in the source material.

Thanks.

Jesse
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: December 07, 2002, 01:56:38 PM »

Hi Jesse,

Seems like this is another thread topic, but OK. As it happens, separated protagonists are common in a lot of games I run. I usually let people bring their characters together as they see fit, in a variety of ways.

1) Physically, which is the most obvious way.

2) Metaphysically, which is quite common in Sorcerer, especially when rituals are going off left and right. This is to say, a particular ritual is happening in scene A which has secondary effects in scene B; the protagonists involved never see one another but the rolls are made simultaneously and played out in concert with one another just as in any complex Sorcerer conflict.

3) Thematically, which is a bit iffier, meaning that what happens in scene A offers some kind of mirror or parallel to what happens in scene B. Again, I try not to force this sort of thing but let it emerge as the players decide to "comment" via player-character decisions on the same sort of stuff.

H'm, now that I think of it, in Sorcerer anyway, it usually goes in reverse order: 3, among separated protagonists, then 2, and finally 1. In Trollbabe, if the adventures are in separate places, then it's usually 3, then almost inevitably 2 (which is very easy to do in that game); if the two or more trollbabes are in the same place, well, that adds a 1 pretty soon.

Best,
Ron
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Clay
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« Reply #9 on: December 08, 2002, 05:11:47 PM »

I've hijacked the kickers for other game systems, and I found that my players did an excellent job of weaving their kickers together. The first player created a situation that his character was in.  The second (his wife) put her character in a situation that was directly related, although the two characters would likely not ever meet.  The last two players Took the idea and expanded it into a vast conspiracy.  Effectively, they wrote my whole world based on some pretty spartan economic and social data that I had presented them about the world, complete with political turmoil and infighting that I hadn't even dreamed of.

They all started physically separated and very quickly worked their stories so that they came together and had a reason to interact.
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Clay Dowling
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: December 09, 2002, 01:35:15 PM »

Hello,

All right, it's time to close this thread, because it's really three questions.

1) What keeps a given course of action from being "obvious" during play, when I want to commit myself as a GM to giving the players lots of options?

2) How do I deal with fellow role-players who do not address the content of play emotionally?

3) How do I run several different player-characters in different locales at the same time?

Jesse, if you'd like to address any one of these further, let's do it, but start a new thread that will be dedicated to it only, OK?

Best,
Ron
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