Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Loading... Loading... Loading...

A ways back, I posted in this thread on about front-loaded games, games that require a lot of planning to get going. I'll outline my points there in a moment, but what I want to talk about today is what makes a game front-loaded, what is the value of front-loaded vs. non front-loaded (the Abigail suggests the term: unloaded) games, and how to predict the front-loadedness or not during the design process.

What do I mean by front-loaded games, exactly? A front-loaded game is any game where preparation is key and difficult to do without. Length character creation processes, numerous characteristics that are derived from other characteristics (making it more difficult to improvise a non-player character on the spot), and complex, specialized rules for some of the many things one might encounter in the environment (traps, for example) all contribute to front-loading. White Wolf's Exalted is a good example of a front-loaded game, because although it uses a familiar, flexible dice-pool system, the game's magic (charms) comes in long lists of individual magic powers, each of which has different prerequisites and its own rules. It's difficult to improvise a non-player character because just tossing a handful of charms her way can lead to weird situations later, such as "what was I thinking, having her use Crimson Blossom of Death but not Heaven Fire Strike? That doesn't make any sense!" Dungeons and Dragons, where every spell is a uniquely rule-breaking phenomenon, creating a powerful enemy or customizing a standard foe can be an extremely lengthy process, and there are special rules for traps, poisons, starving, falling, and drowning, is another good example. I'm not even going to touch Shadowrun.

Now, let me be clear: front-loading a game isn't intrinsically bad. There is a certain ease to running a front-loaded game. All the work is done. Everything you created is laid out in front of you in your notes, and you can focus on having fun with your friends. Also, with a certain degree of familiarity front-loading can become less of a factor. If you know Exalted well enough, for example, it matters less that NPC-generation is so front-loaded, because you know the charm trees backwards, forwards, upside, and down.

There are, however, two serious problems with front-loaded games, and they both center around the unexpected. First of all, it can be incredibly frustrating when players make unexpected choices in a front loaded game because it often makes all that preparation seem like a waste of time - "what do you mean, you jimmy the elevator with a toothpick? A toothpick? You mean I wrote all that awesome stuff on floors six through eleven for no good reason?!" Secondly, unexpected choices can leave you in a lurch, because if the players do something you haven't accounted for, it's likely that you haven't statted it out, either. Both of these sentiments - defensiveness of all the hard work you did and the relative difficulty of improvising - can contribute to rigid plots, and rigid plots lead to railroading, and railroading leads to the dark side.

Finally, those burning zeppelin experiences I love so much tend to come from the unexpected. Or rather, they require a certain flexibility. If you can run with whatever is setting your players on fire right the hell now, you are more likely to create those experiences, and they are what I'm in this whole roleplaying thing for in the first place. Although I'm not about to stop playing my favorite front-loaded games, that means that I have an interest in the phenomenon of unloaded games.

The single most unloaded game I have encountered so far is probably (you guessed it) Houses of the Blooded. What makes Houses of the Blooded so light on its feet? Two things: most of the things players will encounter over the course of play will be defined by the players themselves, not by a game master. If the players are interested in something, they will provide it ("she's a famed swordswoman" says the player who wants to fight a climactic duel at the end of the session "and there are rumors that she is involved in a demon-worshipping cult" responds the player who wants a little horror-investigation), the GM need only keep his or her eyes and ears open. Secondly, each character him or herself consists of very little, and what he or she consists of is directly tied to the way the character is narrated. Your average character is made of five Virtues (ranked numerically) and two or so Aspects, which are short phrases that describe some facet of the character's narrative identity.

Similarly, most of the things in the character's environment can be handled with Aspects. Rooms have Aspects, magical curses have Aspects, and horrible monsters have Aspects. Social situations, foods, and drugs have Aspects. And deciding what Aspects something has is as simple as narrating it. Given what the players have told me about the character above, for example, if she was suddenly and unexpectedly thrust front and center, I can easily give her the "Famed Swordswoman" and "Dark Rumors" Aspects, which she and others could use for and against her in various ways. My work here is done.

Contrast this with, say Exalted (to use a game I also like, so it's clear I'm not just fanboying all over Houses of the Blooded). In Exalted, the traditional balance of power between GM and player is largely maintained. A good GM will listen to her players, but basically writes the story, to which the players react. This isn't bad, but it does mean there is a story that the players can depart from. If they do, I'm in a lot more trouble, because an Exalted character consists of nine Attributes and twenty-five Abilities, each rated from zero to five, a huge variety of magical Charms, each of which requires minimums in various Attributes and Abilities, and several other scores (Permanent Essence, Virtues, Backgrounds) some of which are calculated based on some of the above (Essence points, Willpower). If you've ever run Dungeons and Dragons and seen a "stat block," you know that in that game I'm in even more trouble.

So what have I learned from this comparison? To create an unloaded game, first keep the numbers to a minimum and try to link the really important traits to narration, so that it's easy to decide what someone who suddenly needs stats can do based on what you've already figured out she is. Second, put power in the hands of the players so they can make shit up, leaving you to decide what to do with it, which isn't any easier, but (at least for me) takes less time.

The Abigail suggests that I bring this post out of the concrete and into the ephemeral by talking about the difference between front-loaded and unloaded games in storytelling as well as mechanics, and I'm going to give it my best shot.

As an example, the Abigail lists two of our long running games: one Mage: the Ascension game called Pillars of Creation and another as-yet-untitled Exalted game usually referred to by the name of it's heroine, Nightingale (i.e. "Mark, when are we going to get back to the Nightingale game?").

The Nightingale game is a good example of front-loaded game running. From the very beginning, I had a clear idea of where I was going. I stayed light on my feet, responding to the Abigail's interests (and fixations - like when she decided that she was going to redeem this one villain, Idle Hands of Perdition, no matter how obnoxious he was; I kid because I love), but I knew that Nightingale was eventually going to discover that her previous incarnation had fallen in love with one of his creations and sacrificed her because he had lacked the forethought and bravery to ensure her safety, and that that creation, in her bitterness, was behind many of the world's troubles. The Abigail describes the experience as being one of slow unfolding. She felt like there was a vast, fascinating world moving beneath the surface, just beyond what she could see, and she looked forward to discovering more every time we played.

On the other hand, Pillars of Creation was completely unloaded (and perhaps unhinged). In fact, it began as a total gimmick game. "Hey, the Abigail," I said to one day as we relaxed in Chautauqua one summer, "you have a thing for people turning into other creatures and back again - make me a character who has been trapped in animal form for a long time!"

What the Abigail produced was the story of Emma, a wizard in Victorian England (the Abigail also has a thing for victoriana) who had, through her own arrogance, gotten herself turned into a cat, forgot who she really was (a rival trapped her in an antimagic cat-box), and ended up in America. On a lark, I set the game in an Upstate New York vacation community (Chautauqua with the serial number filed off), and started running with a canon Mage villain (because I couldn't be bothered to invent my own) trying to kill her owner, an adorably normal magic destiny child.

About two years later, Pillars of Creation is one of our favorite games, an epic of love, friendship, betrayal, hope, and desperation. Of course, by now I do have huge plans moving beneath the surface, but at the beginning, I had no idea where I was going. In fact, at the beginning, I would never have predicted that this game would still be running two years later. I'd expected it to run out of steam shortly after Emma regained her human shape.

For the Abigail, Pillars of Creation has been empowering and fun. She knew there was a setting out there and that I was thinking about things she didn't know, but there was more of a sense that anything was possible. The game was lighter, and everything could turn on a dime. "Gee, it would be fun it..." the Abigail would say, and it would happen later that week. In the Nightingale game, it would happen, but more slowly, less adroitly, and sometimes, less enjoyably.

The biggest difference, however, was probably for me. Because I was just as mystified about what came next in Pillars of Creation as the Abigail, I got to be surprised, too. It was almost as though I was somehow Storytelling the game for both of us. Unfortunately, that feeling gradually faded, as the unloaded experience of the first few sessions was eventually replaced. Plots grew in the background, and eventually I did know what was coming next. I had to. I'd written it, and if I hadn't, the game would have fallen apart.

* * *

That's about as far as I can go right now, and this post is approaching epic length. However, I have a few last points.

Firstly, I've yet to experiment with running an "unloaded" game, either Houses of the Blooded, some other low-numbers, high-narrative, power-to-the-players sort of game in the long term. I know that what I read in the book is exciting, but I don't know how long it stays that way. Do those games stay unloaded, or does the buildup of plot eventually force them to become like any other game, potentially fun, but with baggage? I'll have to look into it myself, and when I do, I'll let you know.

Secondly, I don't have any particular questions. Just, as usual, I want input. Input me.

1 comment:

Albert said...

There's a planning strategy/plot structure that can be used in both loaded and less-loaded games that generally fits under the catchall of The Relationship Map. That is, instead of plotting out encounters and events, you write up a set of NPCs who each Want something of the PCs and each other. If you ever reach a lull in the action, you look down the list and ask "Which of these people is going to act next given the current situation, and what are they going to do?" This can potentially require a decent amount of initial outlay, or could start out like Houses.

In any case, I suspect that this is one of the better ways for a GM to manage a Houses game after the first couple of sessions. Before game, the GM goes down the list and asks, "Which of these people want something from the PCs, and which of these people are going to complicate that?" Boom. Instant scenario.