November 27, 2013

The Unarmed Skeletons

The room was full of bones, the remains pulled from four huge mass graves.  The previous grave robbers had taken anything of value, leaving bones, rusting weapons, and rusting armor.

"Let's take all the left femurs,"

"That would work, but it would take hours.  There are hundreds.  The tomb raiders left all the bones, but took most of the weapons and armor."

"There are weapons in there too?"

"You see a few dozen scimitars and other blades."

"We take them and pile them up outside the room.  That shouldn't take long."

"No, maybe five, ten minutes tops."

...

When the negative energy burst came and the skeletons rose, our heroes were ready for them.  And the skeletons were unarmed!

"The skeleton attacks, with its claws.  Because it doesn't have its scimitar.  12 vs. AC probably misses.  It looks resentful."

...

Eventually I had a player ask why I was so mad about them taking the scimitars.  I had to explain I wasn't!  I was just roleplaying the skeletons' frustration at finding themselves unarmed as they desperately tried to kill what they perceived as grave robbers.

I love to show the players the bad guys' feeling cocky or triumphant or proud, but I also love to show the players when the bad guys are feeling scared, disheartened, or frustrated.

What happened here is that the players were kicking the disarmed skeletons' asses and they assumed that I as the DM would feel frustrated.  So when I acted for the skeletons, some of them thought it was me.

I should make a point to make sure my players know it doesn't bother me if the monsters are losing.  On the other side of that coin, though, it doesn't bother me if the monsters TPK unless it's because of a bad rules call or house rule I made.

The best way I can communicate this to my players is the Beholder Story.

So in a certain module I ran, there is a boss fight against a Beholder.  This guy is a deadly threat that should at least threaten to kill a PC or two.  It's also an epic fight where lots of off turn attacks fly both from and toward the Beholder as it shoots eye rays on every PC's turn that starts even remotely close to it.

They evicted it from reality temporarily, then stun-locked it for the entire fight.  It failed four saves in a row.  I was tempted to fudge one of those, but I didn't.  They kept it locked down and hacked it to pieces.  It was a much easier fight, but you know what?

They were so thrilled!  Every round it failed the save they were out of their chairs with glee!  That's what I want for my players.  That's why my skeletons were acting SO FRUSTRATED every time they missed!

I just have to make sure the players know it's not personal.  It's me trying to show how awesome they are.

November 22, 2013

4e Combat Social Conventions

The Social Contract is the implicit or explicit agreement between people to behave in a certain way.

I want to propose some explicit conventions for the 4e social contract for combat situations, not because there's a problem with any players I game with, but because in the middle of the Heroic tier, 4e slows down.  Then it slows down again in mid-Paragon, and then even more at the start of Epic.  

The reason it slows down is that you get more and more options every round, and your actions start to impact the other PCs more and more.  So not only do players spend more time thinking about their choices, risks, and trade-offs, they also start thinking about the other players' choices, risks and trade-offs.  That's fun (if it wasn't Pandemic would have been a flop), but it's also easy to lose perspective.  97% of the time, the PCs win, and the fights are just a part of the story.

Here are three conventions you can propose to your players for social behavior in 4e combat...

1. Be Ready.  Try to choose your action when your turn is about to come up.  Feel free to pre-roll so you can focus on story instead of stats. It lets you do more verbal/creative than dice/arithmetic during your turn.  Compare!  "I pivot around his shield and swing at his knee with my mace, 22 vs AC for 19 damage."  Versus, "I think I'll use Mace Attack.  That's +10 vs AC...  I rolled a 12... so 22?  OK.  It does 1d8+11.  And... I rolled an 8, so... 19 damage."

2. Live and Let Die.  When it comes to the other players, please let them screw up.  Let them screw things up for your character, too.  Respond in character to their mistakes if you must.  Talk about it OOC as a side conversation after their turn or after the combat.  I call this one "live and let die," because there may come a time when a player makes an almost-good-enough decision when his character's life is on the line and you'll have to bite your tongue.  Or shout "Noooooooooo!" in character as the monster makes that OA they didn't consider and drops them like a sack of potatoes.  If saying "live and let die" seems too harsh, replace it with "let it ride" or some other colloquial phrase (gambling jargon is full of good ones).

3. Keep it IC.  Table talk about tactics and strategy must be done IC.  That means that the enemy can hear you.  Out of character side talk is totally OK as long it's not with the person whose turn it is, and we don't have to talk over you.  (This is a game, not a board meeting.)  Feel free to ask rules questions of other players before your turn.  

These are more "ideals" or "goals" than rules with sanctions.  Because you're adults.  But also because you're adults, you can talk about social expectations and actually make stuff better.  You're saying "this is how our ideal combat goes, even though it doesn't always actually go that way."

The titles of each convention are short imperative phrases to make it easy for your group to communicate them.  

November 11, 2013

Hot Topic: The Strange Frame

After posting my last piece on Telling Frame Stories I looked at this kickstarter for The Strange.  By Monte Cook Games, The Strange is an RPG about interdimensional adventures.  It's like a "Fringe" or Dark Tower RPG meets TORG or RIFTS.  There really hasn't been an RPG like this for a while.

In my Frame Stories piece, I talked about the players taking the roles of different characters across time and space.  The Strange will allow you to do that across dimensions and sci-fi and fantasy genre tropes without leaving the singular narrative of your campaign.

I think the Frame Story is the ideal setup for The Strange, because while dimension hopping is fun, it doesn't have to be the only way to tell stories across different recursions.  You can even tell stories that jump back in time in the current narrative, describing recursions that have ended.

So now an example campaign idea...  You know I'm addicted to examples!

You could start with hard boiled New York organized crime task force detectives.  Your first adventure would be investigating several new gangs in Brooklyn.  You make an arrest a strange figure who seems to be key to one new gang of assassins, transition to sword and sorcery as he gives a Usual Suspects story -- but set in fantasyland -- about the awakening of a dark god and a religious conflict spilling out across the Strange into Brooklyn.  You would play through the suspect's story, which would be a series of two fantasy world sword and sorcery "good guys vs. evil cult" adventures, except that you're doomed to fail and eventually flee across the Strange to Brooklyn.  And because you're starting with the frame story (NYC detectives) the players will accept this premise!

After the fantasy story, we return to the NYC cop drama to investigate more gangs (now identified as warring refugee groups from other dimensions).  We meet a character from a sci-fi universe who's a refugee from a new war against mysterious aliens, and play through his story...  Only to discover that an infectious psionic disease awoke across several races across the galaxy in that recursion, and those people started working as a hive mind with a dark purpose...

Ultimately the players will discover a narrative about a dark god awakening in multiple recursions of Earth, threatening to come to Brooklyn and infect the people of New York (and eventually all of Earth).  And they eventually learn why the evil god can't get to Brooklyn yet.  But he's sent his minions there to destroy the one thing holding him back...

So if you want to get Strange, go to the kickstarter page.  I think the All the eBooks package is the best value, but that may be because my dance card is full.  If your group is looking for a cool new game right now, then you might want to spring for a print core book, or maybe the pricey (but fair) All the Print Books option.

If you're reading this after 11/22/13, go to Monte Cook Games or your local game store to find The Strange.

(I was not paid or any way compensated to write this by the way)

November 8, 2013

Frame Stories

A frame story is a story that contains other stories.  It is distinct from a series of stories that fit into a larger arc, which is the typical tabletop RPG (Battlestar Galactica is a famous television story with a series arc).

Some of the most famous frame stories include Canterbury Tales, 1001 Arabian Nights and Interview with the Vampire.  Kill Bill was a fantastic frame story about a quest for revenge, with each target of The Bride's revenge being another story set in the frame, contributing to the frame story.

So you can see, what counts as frame stories are a continuum from something like Kill Bill, where the frame story is the primary story with a series of inset stories supporting it, to Canterbury Tales, where the frame story is just an excuse to have a series of unconnected sub-stories, to The Princess Bride, where the frame is barely present and only used to color the stories contained within, to HyperionThe Usual Suspects or Forrest Gump where the frame provides a twist or resolution to the sub-stories.

In classic history-telling frame stories, the frame is "contemporary" and the sub-stories are historical to the frame.  In Kill Bill and The Call of Cthulhu, for instance, the sub-stories happened in the past.  In The Call of Cthulhu, it happened to someone other than the point of view character.  These are history-telling stories.  Many mystery stories are history-telling frame stories, where there are several persons of interest, and the investigator goes from person to person getting their history with the victim.  Clues within each story point to which one is the real killer.

In fiction-telling frame stories, the frame is used to tell stories that are fictional within the frame, like Canterbury Tales and 1001 Arabian Nights.  The Wizard of Oz and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland blur this line a little.

A typical tabletop RPG campaign is often like Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica, where the story is framed by a "series plot" or "campaign plot" in an RPG.  But because the sub-stories are not stories told by or about characters inside the story, they're not really frame stories.

So...  How can we use frame stories in tabletop RPGs?

Frames for Color
The easiest way to use a frame story is to use a color frame, like The Princess Bride.  The book and movie use different frames, but the movie is clearer:  A grandfather reads a book to his sick grandson, coloring the story as a whimsical fairy tale from the start.  Interview with the Vampire uses a frame for color as well, setting the gothic tone of the sub-story.  In this sort of frame, the frame story is very much secondary to the sub-story, the real story.

Frame to Play with the Fourth Wall

Video games often use a frame to play with the fourth wall.  In Bastion or The Bard's Tale the player experiences someone telling a story to him about what's happening in the game.  In Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, the protagonist is narrating his own tale.  When you die in the game, he says "No, wait, that's now how it happened!"  Frame stories in other media use the frame to give us an important fact: the protagonist is still alive.  This colors the sub-story so that the audience knows that threats to the protagonist's survival are not meant to be the main source of thrills - the stakes depend on some other outcome.  A GM can use a frame story like this to emphasize or de-emphasize dramatic elements.  A GM can also use this sort of story frame to justify meta-game mechanics and genre conventions.  Do you want to run D&D with item shops and level-ups happening mid adventure, lightheartedly emphasizing fantasy genre tropes and anachronistic speech?  Build a frame story about a group of people playing a MMORPG.

You can also use a frame story to justify rotating GMs.  Every GM has a different style, so every adventure will be different.  Why not frame all of the sub-stories in a Canterbury Tales style storytelling contest?  Then either use the same characters in each story (a team of heroes boasting about their adventures in different taverns), or have the characters engage in a contest to tell a fictional heroic adventure story about the other characters (e.g. Fighter tells the story of Wizard, Cleric, Barbarian and Thief), or use entirely different characters for each sub-story.

The "24 Hours Ago..."  Frame
Frequently used in television, start with the characters in a very bad situation, then rewind to the beginning and tell the story of how they got there, then conclude the story by getting them out of their pickle.  This sort of frame story could be especially awesome for tabletop RPGs.  Players hate losing, so starting there frees them to play a story that ultimately ends with them in a bind.  But the object of the sub-story is for the players to build up allies and resources that they can then call on to escape the conundrum of the frame story.  Example:  The heroes start in cells in a secret dungeon, locked up and about to be sacrificed to Asmodeus. Then you flash back to 24 hours ago, where the heroes are trying to find a way into the Shrine of Asmodeus.  Eventually they learn that the only way to get close to the High Priest of Asmodeus is to pretend to be peasants and be captured by his goons looking for easy marks for human sacrifice.  So they spend part of the adventure smuggling in their weapons and armor, concealing lockpicks in the dwarf's beard, etc.

Series of One Shots
Like rotating GMs, you can use a frame story to run a series of one-off stories, like 1001 Arabian Nights.  Or you can tell a series of one-off stories about the same group of protagonists like The Adventures of Baron Munchaussen.  The frame gives some shared context and allows you to connect elements from one adventure to the next, even though they're unrelated.

Nested Stories

An ambitious use of the frame story is to tell nested stories, like in Frankenstein or The Historian. Nested stories can go quite deep, with a contemporary story, a sub-story, and a sub-sub-story.  Each nested story uses an entirely different party of protagonists.  Group A goes on adventure A1, where they meet Group B, who tells the story of their adventure B2, where they find the journals of deceased Group C, which tell the story of ill-fated their adventure C3, which tells Group B something they need to know so that they can survive adventure B4, which tells Group A something they need to know so that they can conclude the campaign with adventure A5.  Over the course of the campaign, the players play three different characters, each.

Mystery Frames
Another ambitious use of the frame story would be to tell a mystery story.  The challenge of this setup is to tell a story where different "five man bands" are suspects, so that the sub-stories can engage all of the players.  For instance, a team of investigators on Babylon 5 is trying to find out who killed an ambassador.  They interview three groups of suspects who had run-ins with him:  A group of black market smugglers, a shadowy team of psi corps, and a rival alien ambassador and his staff.  Each of these is actually innocent.  Each tells their story, and in each story, the players take on the new characters and experience the sub-adventure.  Each sub-adventure has a clue that, given together, point at the real killer.  Then the investigator team has to catch the killer, undue her shadowy plans, and arrest her.

History Frames
A large, complicated historical event like the Age of Sail (real world history), or The Clone Wars (Star Wars), or the Anarch Revolt (Vampire) spans continents (or star systems!) and many different social groups with different perspectives (merchants, various national navies, pirates, jedi, clone troopers, smugglers, loyalists, anarchs, inquisitors).  You can use the frame of the historical event to tell the story of various groups that experienced the event, so that you can let the players experience the event from different perspectives across time and space.

For instance, a Dutch East India Company armed merchantman in the Caribbean in 1795 would have a different perspective from a Spanish man o'war escorting treasure ships for the Third Coalition in the Mediterranean in 1803, compared to a privateer sloop in the Atlantic hunting Napoleon's gold in 1806 or an American heavy frigate defending Boston Harbor in 1812.  Together, one adventure on each ship can allow a different player to take the role of Captain each time, and provide different historical perspectives of the Age of Sail and let players experience sailing ships of various kinds.