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April 29, 2016

Goblin Market

Urban fantasy became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, spawning its own host of tabletop RPGs.  One trope of urban fantasy is the "trade for your magic" bargain wherein regular people (and sometimes wizards) trade some part of themselves for magical powers.  RPGs like Don't Rest Your Head, Ron Edwards' Sorcerer and Unknown Armies do a good job with Faustian bargains.  The very best RPG for goblin deals is Changeling: the Lost, called Goblin Markets, but you can port the trope into any fantasy RPG - maybe even into some sci-fi RPGs.  (Though there's an RPG currently in development called Asylum that's entirely about these sorts of bargains)

A goblin market is an instant trove of plot hooks that could start a campaign or reboot a campaign that's struggling to find reasons for the PCs to care.


Here's how it works...

The PCs encounter a strange creature or market of strange creatures who offer to sell them fantastic, impossible things.  The sellers might be the devil, spirits, faeries, goblins, aliens, Mi-Go, demons, mysterious angels, djinn, an AI system, or gods.  If you're running a Planescape D&D game, you should probably introduce this trope at least once.  It could be a single mysterious tempter or a community or structure full of eerie deal-makers, or even an actual market (like in Changeling).

Nothing for sale is entirely straightforward, but all of them seem useful and maybe even life-changing.  Some may seem like curses, except when you think about them, they would be very useful.  They sell magic items, magic powers, magic properties, and fates.  Here's a sample menu of things on offer:
  • The ability to fly when the sun is shining
  • Immortality, but not agelessness
  • The ability to psychicly hear anyone's negative thoughts about you
  • A sword that, no matter what happens, is guaranteed to kill the person whose name you etch indelibly into its blade
  • Invincibility, until you kill a person
  • The guarantee that you will become wealthy within a year and a day
  • The guarantee that you will always lose when you play a game of chance (try betting that the serial killer won't leave a clue that leads to their arrest, for instance)
  • The dangerous blessing that all locks open with ease in your presence
  • A wand that can teleport you anywhere in the world that you name

The price for these blessings is never money.  The creatures that you trade with wind up asking bizarre, intangible prices.  The bargain you make with them is magical and binding.  These costs come in two categories:  Geasa and pieces of your identity.  Geasa are compulsions or magically-enforced agreements.  Usually the blessing-seller names their price.  But sometimes the shoppers can make counter-offers or even offer some part of themselves or some promise as payment.  Here are some example costs:
  • Your memories of your childhood
  • The promise to return to this same exact place in a year and a day
  • A promise to never eat meat again
  • Your name
  • A small favor to be named in the next year and a day (they really like "year and a day" time-frames)
  • Your face (don't worry - you'll get a loaner for the term of the bargain)
  • The next lucky thing that will happen to you (happens to the goblin instead)
  • Your first born child
  • Your voice (Disney used this trope for the plot of The Little Mermaid)
Some of these prices are heavier than others.  That's OK.  None of them can really be measured against one another anyway.

The GM trick with Goblin Bargains is this:
  1. Whatever the blessing, the GM has to turn it into a curse at least once.  Every single example I listed can be turned to cause a player to sweat.  The invincible character may feel like she doesn't need to kill anyone, since she can withstand any harm.  But when a truly monstrous villain threatens the life of an innocent, and it becomes a life or death struggle, what does she do?  Does she preserve her power?
  2. The price has to be way worse than it seems at first.  For instance, if a player trades for "striking beauty" and gives away their face (which seems like a low price since they're getting a strikingly beautiful one in return), they may find themselves the subject of a statewide manhunt for the crime of serial abductions -- committed by the faerie using their face!  For the duration of the deal (year and a day of course), they can lay low with their new face.  But when their time is up...
The plot that a goblin market can create is immense.  Here are some examples:
Alternatives to the goblin market can change the relationship between the deal-maker and the PCs.  The GM can start the PCs with a need for something impossible, then present the deal-maker as their salvation.  The table can agree to a game about people who start off with good intentions but wind up doing very bad things as a result of their Faustian bargains.

The reason the "goblin market" works to excite players about your game is that they can make a deal to get things they care about, to achieve goals they care about.  In return, they pay a cost that motivates them to avoid the drawbacks of their bargain, or even to try to get out of it.  That's fuel for many, many sessions of play.  

April 20, 2016

Stance and the Magic Circle

I've had a lot of articles about D&D mechanics lately, so it's time for another RPG theory piece.  Today's topic: Stance.

There are a lot of different ways to play an RPG.

Ron Edwards' concept of Stance in RPGs describes three ways in which a player interacts with the game:

  • Actor stance, where the player thinks like their character, making decisions based only on game world information the character knows, using the character's motives.
  • Author stance, where the player makes decisions for the character based on what the player wants to see happen, then decides the character's reasons for making those decisions.  ("Pawn stance" is when the player makes decisions for the character, but without regard to why the character would make those decisions.)
  • Director stance is like Author stance, in that the player makes decisions based on what the player wants to see happen.  Except in Director stance, the player also has the ability to make decisions for other characters and events in the game world, outside their own character.
I think these categories are fine, but they can be improved on.  For instance, Author and Director stance both imply the same relationship between the player's motives and their character's motives.  And Director stance is a feature of the game rules, not the player's preference.

Let's re-examine stance from the concept of the Magic Circle.  Quick refresher:  The Magic Circle is the permeable membrane between the shared imagined world of the game (Gary Allen Fine called it the "Game World Frame" using Erving Goffman's frame analysis) and the real world.  Inside the magic circle is the game world.  Outside is the real world.

Wait, what?  Permeable membrane?  Things from my D&D game can get into the real world?

That's right - things can bleed across the membrane.  When something crosses from the real world into the game world, it's called bleed-in.  When something crosses from the game world into the real world, it's called bleed-out.  It's not like the Red Wizards of Thay are sneaking into Earth from Faerûn.  Ideas, relationships. idioms, and emotions are the most likely things to bleed.  Say I had a hard day at work, and I want to blow off steam.  My nerdy decker is going to be a little more likely to break out his Ares Predator in tonight's game.  Say I pull off a really cool heist in a D&D game and even though there were some hitches, we pulled it off with aplomb.  I'm going to be excited and proud when I talk about it on Facebook the next day.

We can look at stance from the lens of the magic circle and see how there are two axes of stance:  Bleed-in and bleed-out.  As I said before, GMs can try to encourage or discourage bleed in various ways.  But bleed is ultimately a player characteristic.  It's related to personality - games are a form of identity management, after all. Some players have a membrane that's more permeable one or both directions.  We're just talking about the permeability of the membrane between real and virtual worlds; self and pretend-role.

  • Actor stance implies a permeable membrane, with a lot of bleed-in and bleed-out.  
  • Author and Director stance imply a less permeable membrane, with little bleed-out but some bleed-in.  Pawn stance has significant bleed-in.
  • Power gamers have significant bleed-out:  They're players who feel bad if their characters suffer defeat.
  • Story gamers less interest in or get less enjoyment from bleed-out.  Story games often strongly discourage bleed-out and strongly encourage bleed-in:  In Microscope, for instance, what a player wants is far more important than what the character they're currently playing wants.  
  • Horror games strongly encourage bleed-out.
  • There are systems in some games to break players from too much bleed-in.  From Alignment in D&D to Aspects in Fate, RPGs have asked players to commit to strong, defining personality traits for their characters.
The step from Author to Director stance can be captured in how much of a sphere of influence the game provides players.  If you can only control your character, like in old school D&D, you're limited to Actor and Author stance.  But even in games that give players a huge sphere of influence, like Microscope, a player can still assume Actor and Author stance.  Even though games like Microscope give players a large sphere of influence over the world, some players prefer to role-play a single character, limiting how much of that sphere of influence they actually use.  Others might chafe at the limited sphere of influence in a game of D&D, constantly suggesting story ideas and NPC actions to the DM (or perhaps those people are the ones who are temperamentally inclined to be the DM).

Looking at bleed and sphere of influence as personality traits means stance is more than just a player's current approach to affecting the game world.  It means it can be used to describe a player's preferred approach, too.

Stance Revised
So that leaves us with three characteristics of stance.  A player has a current and preferred version of each:

  • Bleed-in Permeability 
  • Bleed-out Permeability
  • Sphere of Influence
Players can shift their stance over the course of a game.  

For instance, let's say we're playing a game of Night's Black Agents (see the link to the right).  The party splits up, and first I have a scene where I'm hacking some vampire gangster's cell phone and listening in on their conversations.  I might immerse myself during that scene, taking an actor stance with lots of bleed-out and a moderate amount of bleed-in.  After I'm done, the GM turns to you, and you have a scene where your character is tailing a suspected hit man through a bad neighborhood in Marakesh.  I can still experience bleed from your character into my own self -- I can be afraid for you, for instance.  But I don't.  I "close my membrane," and observe from more of a director stance with no bleed-out and a bit of bleed-in.  Without hogging the spotlight, I suggest a few cool things that the GM could throw into the scene to add to the fun for everyone.

Thoughts?  Reactions?  Let me know!

April 6, 2016

Not on My Watch

While it's always been in my GM Credo to facilitate inclusion, recently good folks have raised awareness of the need for RPG players, especially GMs, to take a stand against rotten behavior at the table that makes players uncomfortable - especially racism, homophobia, and misogyny.  The problem is especially bad in public gaming spaces, where strangers mingle, such as game stores, meetups, and cons; though it could happen anywhere.

As the GM, it is your responsibility to shut down abusive player behavior.  If you run a game with close friends, you already do this, custom-tailored for them.  You don't have to be hyper-alert to the players' reactions to things, because you've known them for a long time, and they're still playing with you.  They've known you for a long time, too, and they know they can talk to you if something at the table makes them uncomfortable.

Gaming with acquaintances and strangers is another story.  If you ever go to a convention or run games at a library, games cafe, or friendly local game store; you need to be more alert.

As responsible GMs, we must acknowledge that everyone is at risk for abusive behavior, and we are all good at noticing and controlling behaviors that make people like ourselves uncomfortable; but it takes heightened awareness and empathy to notice and respond to behavior that could make people different from us uncomfortable.

For instance, if you're thin, you may not notice fat shaming at your table.  If you're a man, you may not notice a scene in a game that makes the women around you uncomfortable.  If you're Jewish, you might have to pay special attention to make sure the table doesn't make a Christian uncomfortable.

The good news is that roleplayers and especially GMs get a lot of practice putting ourselves in others' shoes.  Human empathy is "thinking in character" -- except that the person across the table from you is the character.  You have the skills.  You just have to activate them.

This is not about being politically correct, but about making sure everyone has the best time at your table.  That's how your GMing is evaluated, in the end:  How much fun did everyone have?  If one player out of the four at your table is uncomfortable because half your D&D session was spent in a Faerun cathouse making caricatures of women and sex workers, and you didn't notice because you're not a woman; you only did a good job for 75% of your players.  Even if the other 3 players had a blast, 75% is a C.  Nobody wants to be a C-level GM.  You don't have to be politically correct; you just have to be sensitive to the people at your table.
  1. Behavior at or near our table is something we GMs have authority to address.
  2. It takes special attention to be alert to behavior that could bother people different from us.
  3. Failing to notice and address behavior that makes our players uncomfortable is bad GMing.
  4. We must not allow that kind of behavior while we have the authority to stop it.  #NotOnMyWatch (thanks to Heather Stern for the hashtag!)
How do you do it?  Use the tools you already have:  You can say no to a racist character just as easily as you say no to a cheesy rules abusing character.  You can railroad the players away from a misogynistic scene just as easily as you can railroad them away from wasting their time chasing a red herring.  You can use the dice and stats to abstract out uncomfortable scenes or just not run them, just like you do with scenes that might be uncomfortable for you.  If the players are yukking it up about a portly ogre, end that conversation with a goblin ambush.  If you can't control the behavior by diverting the players, you will need to step out of character - the same as with any disruptive behavior, like inappropriate cell phone use, rules lawyering, or quarterbacking.

You don't have to be a social justice warrior.  You don't have to advocate for anything.  You just have to do your job as a GM; and the most important part of your job is making sure everyone is comfortable and having a good time.