A lot has been said about the endings to ME3, and hell, they got me thinking too. Let me start by saying that I don’t have a particularly strong objection to the content of the ending I got. My primary objections to how ME3 ended are based in the context of those endings and what they lacked, rather than what they contained. Further, I think there are some valuable lessons to be learned from these endings and Risk: Legacy.
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I was excited to play Lady Blackbird after the years and years of hearing people talk about it. Secrets! Airships! Magic! I was also curious how a game who’s core rules can fit on half a page would work given that the best rules section I’ve ever read was the very lengthy rules and commentary section in Apocalypse World. Anyway, let’s get to it.
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So we recently had a request from the brilliant @strasa for a post about meshing multiple arcs together when running Becoming Heroes. It was always our intention that it be done, as closely as possible, to give everyone an epic sense of destiny at work. Nothing is as iconic to fantasy as this particular story structure—that everyone arrives at the crossroads of destiny at once, at the same time, for one last final battle between good and evil.
Recently, I joined an Exalted game a friend of mine was running. After nearly a year of indie-only play, I came to the game with fresh eyes. I was surprised once I got into it, though, at my comparative lack of frustration at the long list of obtuse rules. Don’t get me wrong, many rules in Exalted make me want to set the world on fire. But I didn’t just slam the book down and back out of the game. Instead I got roped into this wonderlandian rabbit hole of Exalted character generation. I wondered why it hooked me so much when I knew that ultimately, Exalted just isn’t my schtick. It got me thinking about pre-play in general, and what keeps people attached to crunch and rules-heavy games like Exalted or D&D.
And then it hit me. At no other point in these more traditional games do you make nearly as many decisions as you do when making a character. The joy, the real good stuff, is in that early sweep of decision-making. You get to define a person, optimize them, stylize them, dress them, power them, engineer them for the moments of badassery you want them to have. There’s a relevant quote from the movie You’ve Got Mail here:
“The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self: Tall. Decaf. Cappuccino.”
We at Transneptune Games have recently discovered that we are pretentious.
This came to light while we were editing our game Becoming Heroes (which is the final title of In a Dragon-Guarded Land). One fine editor was kind enough to point out that our in-text language was a little on the pretentious side. At first we were (briefly) dismissive of his point on the grounds that it was okay to be so. After all, we’re indie gamers. We speak of IIEE and narrative authority as casually as sane people might talk about their coffee this morning. But after sleeping on this criticism and re-reading the game, we realized the horrible truth of the matter. We were not just pretentious, we were unbelievably pretentious.
Many games have this curious design problem: the mechanics for PCs and NPCs cannot be the same, because it would impossibly tedious to run it that way. At least, this is true in the case of any even moderately complex system. God forbid you need to run GURPS or D&D, let alone Shadowrun. The absolute hardest part of running Shadowrun, if you are a storyteller who is also a masochist and actually does this, is to stat out all of your NPCs. Character creation in Shadowrun is an ordeal, often taking hours if not days to complete. It’s completely impractical to try and do this for your NPCs, even if you’re only statting up the big hitters. I recall the one Shadowrun game I ran (for a whopping 13 sessions) had only three or four biggies that needed stats and even they took about a week to properly make. This was complicated when one of my players hacked their cyberware and suddenly I needed a precise list of her capabilities, devices, their respective ratings and then how much Essence she had left over and so on. That was a nightmare, and it’s posed a huge barrier to running it again. And sure, there are a few example NPCs in the books that are pre-statted, but there are never enough kinds of them and they don’t work for custom antagonists. Exalted has this same problem. Please try making up an Abyssal on the fly, complete with Charms and Virtues and Ability scores. I dare you. Having tried, what I can tell you is that asymmetry between the players and your NPCs is both healthy and right.
So first, read John’s brilliant post. I want to talk about some of the “fenceposts” we use to corner off that narrative space he mentions.
My first attempt at designing a game was laden with the same kind of hubris the creators of GURPS had—trying to make a game that could do anything. And a game that can do anything can do no one thing really well. Eventually we got bored of it. Why play a wild west game in a generic system when you can play Dogs in the Vineyard? Why play a game of space marines in a generic system when you have 3:16, or if that is insufficiently crazy, WH40k? Mechanics are a huge part of this. A generic mechanic (like percentile dice, any pure attribute + skill, d20, etc) will never hook you like one designed for what it’s doing, in its home narrative space. This is because those fenceposts are fun in and of themselves, in their own way. So we all know about some neat ways to say, hit a guy with a sword, but I want to talk about mechanics that change the game over time. Because in the end, even a really neat mechanic for hitting a guy with a sword pales in comparison (after a few sessions) to the macro-sized mechanics that define how the game is played after the first few sessions.
So games like Burning Wheel have an interesting way of engineering the shape of play. Over time, the conflict that Beliefs create for the character add up in the form of Artha and cause them to Be Awesome later. Similarly, in FATE, you get narrative ammunition through losing conflicts, in the form of Fate Points. The end effect is that over time, a bunch of strife and loss cause you to accumulate narrative power which you then leverage in a later conflict. This seems to me like a neat hack to getting that awesome story-like arc that many are looking for in a game—a period of being laid low followed by glorious victory. The best part is that the GM doesn’t even need to plan too much for it happening, they just need the barest of peripheral awareness of your banked-up story control points.
Of course, this kind of story-like shape is nearly impossible to engineer in more traditional games. D&D, Shadowrun, Pathfinder and their comrades don’t try to get this kind of story, and so they don’t get it. So if you find your epic fantasy game devoid of the proper amount of epic heroism, there is a reason for that. The advancement mechanic, really all the macro-level stuff, in games like D&D do not change or do anything to your narrative space. It’s simple math, an incredibly careless mechanic that gives you no sense of progress or destination. Think for a second about how in movies, heroes become more badass, but in D&D, you do not really change relative to your opposition. CR is matched to party level. You just get more options for texturing your opposition as you grow in “power” over time.
This of course leads right back to that tricky issue of needing boundaries to be boundaries, while needing them to get broken. Advancement really highlights issues with relative power level and boundaries, and I’ve not yet encountered an advancement system that was to my liking. Does anyone out there have some particularly good examples in mind?
Unfairness in stories, heroic stories in particular, is the point of those stories. To defeat overwhelming odds in the name of good is dramatic and interesting. Specifically though, heroes in these stories need to overcome the ways the opposition is unfairly better than them. In Tolkien’s tale, the humans fight back against huge armies of orcs by defending themselves in citadels, by gathering their own huge army, and by a neat if ill-advised metaphysical hack against the big bad.They apply their strengths to the weakest points in their opposition, and so counterbalance the unfairness they’re up against.
The most fascinating thing happened to me after a few years of playing World of Darkness. Over time, I began to hate combat. Like fire-in-the-soul, singing the world-ripper melody of vengeful dead gods level of hate. I took my katana and trenchcoat and just hung them up in my dingy undercity apartment, never to look at them again. I was hesitant to give it up at first, mystified as I was by this development, but my loathing grew stronger and purer with every minute we spent killing some asshole’s mooks.
After a time, I realized that there was a genre clash. When playing Mage, a game about transcendence and the malleability of reality itself, I found I was really just playing a super hero in a setting that was mechanically unfit for it. When playing Vampire, I had the same problem. The game’s fiction was laden with these cool ideas and highfalutin concepts, but somehow we spent hours just trying to hurt some guys with our katanas and Desert Eagles. Where was all that intellectual conflict? From what I’ve heard of a lot of WoD games, this is not uncommon. Part of this problem is rooted in a confusion within the source material—at no point in Mage: the Ascension are we told what Mages do with their time. The War is over, the Technocracy won by any meaningful definition of the word, and the spirit realm is basically off-limits. Ascension is not a goal that has a mechanic, or is even explicitly attainable. And if it was attainable, ἀρετή, the stat governing your Ascension, was utterly opaque, meant to be a kind of platonic-ideal-world understanding of the entire universe-as-a-whole that was impossible to play. Combine that with the still-extant threat of the Mage-Hunting Technocracy and you have a cocktail for aimless HITMark kill quests and zombie-survival-but-with-magic games.
So in the Dragon Age computer/console games, you fight these endless hordes of faceless monsters called Darkspawn. The hero of the story must kill their leader in order to neutralize the giant horde of them that is threatening the ambiguously middle-ages european landscape. These monsters are the giant threat that the hero must deal with, but ultimately the hero’s victory over the Darkspawn is unsatisfying because the hero faces a foe that represents no moral quandary. Even the final boss, the Big Bad, is a mook! It is as faceless as its minions—despite being a fallen Elder God it offers no commentary, no insight whatsoever on the human or trans-human condition. It merely roars and directs its mindless masses. Luckily, I am finding that the sequel is much better about this, though certainly not perfect.
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