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RPG War Mastery #1: Conducting Better Battles

So let’s talk NPC Combat strategy.Battle and strategy as chess

Whether small groups or full-on military units Non-Player Characters (NPCs) can benefit from better strategy. This so that they can present better challenges for players. Especially if Player Characters (PCs) tend to just barrel through their enemies with little trouble even when the challenges are supposedly on par. Typically, it seems Game Masters (GMs) just rely on assembling a bad-guy team based on individual role (not a bad strategy), plain raw power, and on the dice to prevent a PC massacre. In addition to this old mixed-results standby, there are four strategies for putting together a better battle. However, to conduct a better battle the Game-Master must first construct its framework.

First, You the GM must have a specific goal that will be met by the use of strategizing NPCs. Second, decide which of the 4 combat strategies to use and in which combo. Third, have an idea of or be able to improvise a twist before it’s over. You need to know which goals a battle will fulfill. The basic strategies that the NPCs will use to conduct the battle, and what twist (if any) that will occur in the course of the battle.

The Four Combat Strategies are Confrontation, Ambush, Herding, and Gauntleting. All four of these are simple and time-tested strategies. Strategy referring to a series of planned actions when carried out to the final action is assumed to achieve a specific result. In other words, strategy is plotting out a path to victory in reference to the field of battle. This brings us to what exactly the word battle is referring to in this article.

Battle refers not necessarily to a large war or even a combat between two large forces. It can be a simple struggle between two groups of characters with opposing goals. Both sides are using strategy to tilt the scales in their favor. This can occur on the field of battle, contest, or through manipulative means. However, this article is sticking to the simple idea of a physical confrontation where the deposition/elimination of the other will lead to the desired results.

At the end of a battle, there should be one last unexpected thing, a call to reinforcements initially held back etc., it does not necessarily have to be clever or even turn the tables. It can be as simple as a sniper trying to take out a valued NPC, commander, or PC in vengeance. It can even be a strategy that has already been implemented but not obvious or was hidden until the very end, revealed when it can be the most devastating. This is the twist. A twist in this context is simply another hurdle or one last blow dealt below the belt to engender drama.

GM Battle Goals

To conduct a better battle you have to decide what purpose the battle or confrontation serves in the game. Is it an action set piece, a challenge that breeds immersion, or a fight meant to force the players from their comfort zones? There must be a purpose. A desired outcome for implementing the battle in the first place so that you can best prepare.

A battle as an action set piece, which is just an action sequence, perhaps an action sequence bigger than those that had come before, could be the climax to a story arc or something that has been building up long before the battle.  During gameplay the set piece can be built up through preparation (think preparation montage of an 80’s action flick) or a series of confrontations otherwise creating anticipation.

An example is an NPC villain that has gotten the best of the PCs on multiple situations that they now view as a rival and are chomping at the bit to get a piece of. However, when the battle rolls around they find out he’s an enemy commander, mercenary, or champion. They then realize that their chance will be on the battlefield. The action set piece serving to satisfy player anticipation especially at its climax.

Besides the action set piece, the GM can have other goals such as an important challenge for the PCs, to dislodge the Players from a current rut, but most of all they should have the goal of NOT killing off their players. As a challenge, a battle can bring a real threat to the PCs forcing strategizing and thus immersion for players. This is especially true if they are facing an enemy for which the typical direct confrontation strategy will not work. The players may have previously learned this lesson the hard way.

Challenging combat can also dislodge players from their comfort zones and breaking them from inactivity. This is especially necessary when such inactivity that diverts their energies from the campaign goal and that which has little to no character benefit. The emergence of an enemy that requires extra care and planning can motivate players and thus their characters to head towards a specific goal. However, the enemy should not be so overwhelming as to prematurely end the PCs careers unless they take an obviously stupid course of action.

In addition, remember not to kill off players. A TPK (total party killed) should not occur though a few PCs may be cut down in the course of the battle itself especially if it is a large set piece or the finale to a campaign. In the lead up to the battle they should not die. However, if one should fall, it should be played up to prey on the remaining characters’ thirst for vengeance. What makes tabletop sessions interesting is the evolution and building of characters through experience and trials. That story ends when they fall.

The Four Strategies

The four strategies most effective for NPC’s to carry out in search of victory are the time-tested Head Long Confrontation, the Ambush, Lemming Herding, and of course, Gauntleting. These are simple, easy to understand, and implement, and best of all they can be extremely effective when used properly and with a little luck.

The Headlong Confrontation is the most familiar and common of battle types some would say overused but when one or both sides believe they have the superior power it is the most direct and effective if that assumption is true. A headlong confrontation is an encounter where the NPCs come right at the PCs with little or no set up beforehand or use of simple tactics such as ambush or surprise attacks.

The NPCs can still try to conduct strategy during a straight up fight by either maneuvering their combat lines, attempting flanking, charging the PCs, or using individual combat skills or abilities to the service of their comrades. Typically, these types of confrontations should be among the first the PCs face when dealing with an enemy force that will escalate later in the game. This gives time and opportunity to build up animosity and grudges on both sides naturally.

An Ambush on the other hand is where the enemy takes position ahead of time often concealed in wait for their foes hoping to gain a certain advantage. The advantages of this strategy are gaining a surprise attack on the target, gaining a position of advantage, or the ability to target specific members of the enemy force right when the battle starts. A strike from afar with such things as a hidden war-engine and especially with magic can also be considered a form of ambush sometimes even when the PCs are expecting some form of attack. However, ambushes always run the risk of detection.

The detection of an ambush nullifies the advantage of the enemy group but may not reveal each individual enemy allowing them to still get sneak attacks on individual PCs. Even when the PCs are expecting attack, on guard, they may not expect the kind of attack or the angle it takes in its trajectory at them thus still catching them off guard. Therefore knowing the type of ambush is just as critical as knowing when and where it will happen.

Concerning mass-combat (a large-scale battle) units, ambushes are often perpetrated by smaller more maneuverable units whose purpose it is to disrupt the enemy supply lines or disrupt an advance. The smaller unit will ambush a vulnerable target that may be larger and then will pull back before the tide of battle turns on them. Ambush in the terms of mass-combat is typically a harassment tactic although it is not impossible that an entire army can ambush another. This happened once in recorded history (Hannibal ambushing the Romans at Trasimene) but in a fantasy world, other factors may make this a more frequent occurrence.

The third strategy, Lemming Herding concerns getting the players to wander into a trap or a blind alley. It is tricking or steering the PCs by the NPCs (not the GM) into a position of vulnerability and then striking immediately. This can involve baiting with a weaker force and getting the PCs to pursue, kidnapping a beloved NPC or weakest PC, or stealing a valued object and letting the PCs either chase them or leaving easy to follow clues to the chosen location for them to follow later.

The final strategy and the costliest is Gauntleting. This is having groups of weaker enemies hitting in waves and/or sniping out the player group in order to weaken them and use up their resources before the main brunt of the enemy makes its move. This strategy not only costs the NPCs in lives, albeit low level lives, but requires an in depth knowledge of their adversaries, the Player Characters. They need to know how strong they are, what the limits of their abilities and equipment are. This strategy is often the last in a series of maneuvers having the drained and battered PCs coming out of the other end of the gauntlet only to find themselves exactly where the enemy wants them: in a direct confrontation with a superior, fresh, and eager force.

The Twist

After the PCs and NPCs have made their initial contact, the NPCs have tried all the strategies at their disposal, and the PCs believe they are at the end of the fight; it is time for the twist. The twist takes three major forms: Choosing the Field, the Betrayal, and Reserve Forces.

Choosing the Field involves the enemy deciding either directly or with some manipulation as to where to face the PCs which of course plays to the enemy’s strengths. This often involves a lot of sabotage, deliberate clues, political manipulation, and essentially implementing the Lemming Herding strategy in varying degrees just to allow the NPCs to select the field of confrontation. Sometimes the enemy can prey on the honor of the PCs by challenging them to show up at prescribed time and location for a duel. At this late point, this can allow the enemy to make use of a land feature or hidden cache unknown to the players allowing for a nasty surprise that stands the chance of turning the tide or stealing victory just when it was so close. It tightens the tension very fast and can turn the campaign path on a dime if successful.

The Betrayal occurs when the PCs discover a character within their inner circle to be a traitor working for the enemy. They can be working in the capacity of a thief, saboteur, spy, manipulator, or an assassin. This betrayer, there can be more than one, is usually an NPC especially a torchbearer or other hireling type. If they were a more trusted NPC such as a frequent ally or a supplier, the results can be more devastating in terms of combat and in emotional stress. At this late point a sudden betrayal can not only turn the battle but also it very likely will cost a PC their life if not creating a new foe to pursue after the initial one is defeated.

The Reserve Forces twist is when the enemy has a hidden reserve of warriors or soldiers hidden or camouflaged somewhere near the battlefield lying in wait for a specific signal to join the fight. This twist is a definite game changer during a battle and can if the PCs figure it out in time become a new goal within the greater battle to try to snuff out or stop the signal. Of course, this strategy can also apply to the PCs and their forces as well with the goal inverted with them trying to implement the signal and maybe the villains trying to stop them. Be careful to implement twists sparingly and believably.

Do not just tack it on. The twist can become cliché very quickly and seem like a case of railroading if it suddenly changes the tide of battle with absolutely no clue that it was coming. Note that a clue can consist of a demonstrably clever enemy commander and/or a strange uncalled for confidence on the battlefield.

Summary

GMs can heighten challenge by allowing their NPCs to make strategic decisions, having a clear goal that the battle will meet, and by implementing a twist at the end. To wage a better battle the GM must first have a specific purpose in waging that battle: challenging the PCs, stirring Players out of ruts, adding in an impressive set piece.

After you, the Game-Master has constructed your battle you need to decide on the strategies and methods that the NPCs will use and how the twist at the end will play out. This helps to create a challenge that can get inactive players acting and engage them in a very specific way thus helping immersion. Battles can also be very cool (or tragic) set pieces that put an exclamation point to the end of an adventure or a campaign.

Such battles make great tabletop tales to pass around and retell to receptive audiences.

Tabletop Meditations #19: Murder Hoboes Inc.

Your player group has just slaughtered an entire village for the hell of it, they kill every other NPC thatMurder D20 has any words with them, and they loot every corpse. In fact, loot is just one excuse they use to participate in the slaughter of unfortunate NPCs. What you have on your hands is every GM’s nightmare, a gaggle of Murder Hoboes.

The problem of murder hoboing is as old as fantasy roleplaying games themselves. A problem best dealt with directly in-game though out-of-game preparation can help to mitigate its appearance. The term itself comes from the commonality that most adventurers are essentially homeless wanderers looking for wealth and power through fighting enemies, participating in expeditions, and general adventuring.

Murder hoboing is a problem because it can derail an adventure by killing off of important NPCs thereby disposing of any important information they were to relay to the PCs, cause utter chaos in game rendering all the prep work a GM has done fruitless, and may squelch the fun of those actually trying to engage the game world. Ultimately it rests with the GM to work with the offender to get things back on pace. However, direct confrontation might not be the best or effective way to go about things instead attempts from within the game should be tried first to gently coerce the Player through their character. Every group has had a player that has done this and often groups do go through these types of phases early in their existence.

However, not all adventurers are Murder Hoboes though the majority seem to be itinerant by their very nature. A Murder Hobo is essentially an adventurer that simply goes around killing everything in their path in order to reap experience points (XP) or to loot the corpses of their victims. They often do not discriminate between villains, allies, monsters, animals, innocents, and criminals. If it exists within the game, worth is broken down into loot or XP.

On the other hand, Murder Hoboing is the behavior manifesting from the previously mentioned outlook by a Player using their Player Character (PC). A player may hold this simplistic view due to boredom, a long lull or inactivity in the game, or lack of immersion leading to said boredom. This can also come from playing a character that has been built solely for combat and nothing more in a game that consists of little or no combat or has long stretches between the actual fighting and the other RPG elements.

There are three major strategies or courses of action that can be used to mitigate murder hoboing that do not directly target the Player. The first called the Session Zero approach strives to construct a set of rules and understanding that will set up the boundaries for Players and the GM. This is a preemptive strategy.

The second strategy is to require a Backstory from each Player for their character in an effort to invest the Player in the fate of their character. Hopefully inspiring them to not misuse them to derail the game. The last approach is to Bait the offender and essentially use the potential fate of their character to send a warning to them that their attempt at having fun stomping all over everybody else’s’ will only end in frustration for them. This is still an indirect approach but is very close to being directed at the player him or herself and if misused that is exactly what it will feel like to them, so use this last approach with caution.

Session Zero is the pregame where the group gathers to generate characters and where the general rules and expectations of the group can be discussed establishing a general code of Player behavior. The GM can give their input in character builds so that players can create characters that can participate in as much of the play as possible thereby avoiding the boredom and over-specialization that can lead to the adoption of the murder hobo mindset. Typically, a Session Zero is a meet up to generate characters and discuss table manners before the next actual play-session. This preliminary session also gives the players a chance to come up with and write backstories for their characters.

Players that have worked on a backstory will have more invested in their characters. Thus, they are less apt to go on uncharacteristic killing sprees or randomly murder NPCs. Granted that their character is not actually a homicidal maniac. A backstory also allows a GM to integrate a character into the game world and even into the main thrust of a campaign by linking elements in their backgrounds with adventure and campaign elements. This also gives the GM ammo when a PC does go berserk and needs to be reined in allowing for in-game story options to do that if only as a distraction.

This brings us to baiting. This strategy involves using a situation or NPC that appeals to the worst nature of the Player(s) in order to lure them into a confrontation. The bait of course is much more than can be seen, they are characters designed to prey on the weaknesses of the offender(s) as well as defend against their strengths. Either this forces the offender’s compatriots to join them or back away during the fight. If they survive that encounter then bait them again to send a warning shot across their bow in order to let them know they may not be able to tell a bait-NPC from the average NPC.

Whereas the previous strategies do not directly target the offending player(s), remember the bait tactic means the player(s) has to take it, there are effective strategies that do. These techniques directly oppose the PCs in game and if over-used may cause players to resent the GM. They may come to believe the GM is laying tracks (as in railroading) or just deliberately beating up on their characters, so try not to over-use these techniques. I suggest that these strategies should be utilized when the characters start exhibiting or carrying out murder-hobo behaviors. These tactics are the Boss Strategy, making use of diegetic Power Structures, and deploying an Avenger.

A one time-tested strategy to handle murder hoboing has been to insert increasingly powerful NPC’s (paladins are common) to act as adjudicators and avengers essentially using the Video-Game Boss Strategy. A boss in this context is an NPC that functions as a roadblock to the endeavors of the players. Sometimes they can also function as a landmark, especially as an indicator of player power level. An example is an NPC showing up early in the PC’s career that beats the hell out of them and gets away.

Eventually the PC’s catch up to this NPC and are able to defeat them in a later confrontation allowing players to demonstrate not only their characters’ increased powers and abilities but also (hopefully) their better teamwork and maybe ability at planning and strategy. Bosses are ideally effective combatants up to the point of defeating the players, that is they are hard to defeat but are not overwhelmingly or impossible to knock down.

The Boss strategy can keep the murder-hobo(es) on their toes focusing their attention. It also has entertainment value so eliminating murder hoboing due to boredom. The Boss should inspire the PCs to track them down where NPCs with information become important to that goal. A murder hobo would lose the ability to get their claws into the Boss by not sparing the “throw-away” NPCs.

A better strategy, one that increases the depth of the setting, is to impose a socio-political hierarchy (feudalism etc.) that is defined and useable in game with the NPCs holding these positions not having to be super-charged or even particularly unique. The structure will ensure that even the players eliminate those in charge there is always a replacement and all the powers above them will see the players as threats to their persons as well. Thereby hiring and sending out the boss-types not only reinforced with the authority to deal with them but with back-up coming from all angles which includes ordinary citizens as informants or even poisoners or entrappers. These people who not only believe in the system which can by themselves be enough but those who also have stakes built into the system or at least those who believe they do are very dangerous.

Overarching structures are more effective being very big and complex such as the Feudalist Hierarchy, which is basic but can be complex very quick as can succession to any of its offices. Smaller self-governing structures such as Guilds are more common but are also attached in some way to the overarching political structure by agreements, contracts, laws, and money. Meaning certain parts of the system will awaken to protect the whole as well as those parts that will see the murder-hoboes as their answer to political expediency and try to use them as such. This method can turn murder-hoboes into true role-players very quickly especially if they care anything about their characters. If the PCs still randomly murder the NPCs then an avenger may be called for.

An Avenger or Nemesis type NPC has the power and resources to hunt down and be a definite threat against the offending PCs. This type of NPC will definitely try to get them alone in a duel-like situation and will have no mercy convinced that they are the good guy and may very well be in this situation. It should be obvious to the Players that this character is too powerful to confront directly and there should be clues dropped in the game to demonstrate this and clue the Players in. There should also be in-game moments when the PCs know a superior enemy is stalking them. This helps to focus the murder-hobo(es) on something other than murder hoboing.

Murder Hoboing can drag a game down into pure boredom with the GM paralyzed due to a vital tool being broken. The ability to put clues and raw information into the mouths of NPCS is extremely important to running a game. It also boils roleplaying games down to simple number crunching as murder hoboing often involves greed for XP but this is not always applicable. However, there a ways to mitigate and fight this lazy approach to RPGs that some players have or may fall into.

The more passive and preventative approaches are running a preliminary session (Session Zero), require character backstories from each player, and do not be afraid to bait troublesome player characters.  These should be attempted before the more direct methods are used. The more direct methods to combating murder-hoboes are employ increasingly powerful NPCs as adjudicators, make use of in-game power and political structures, and sending out avenger or nemesis type NPCs directly at the PCs. Note that the GM should never overuse these direct tactics as players may take it as direct attacks on them by the GM, so use sparingly.

Of course, if all else fails maybe it’s time to let go of the troublesome player or try to adjust to the group’s method of play if it is the entire group and a new one is not an option. Maybe such a group is better at being the villains.

Tabletop Meditations #18: Disease

The Player Characters (PCs) are traveling through a fetid, sweltering swamp. Halfway through their Potions and Medicines to combat diseaseadventure the expedition begins to fall sick with fever. At first, just a few torchbearers were sick and then a few porters. Eventually almost the entire adventuring party is sick even a few PCs are ill. The danger made apparent before the expedition. However, they assumed it couldn’t be that bad. After all, they had healing magic at their disposal. Now stranded at the center of a monster-infested morass they are bogged down with a sick and dying expedition. In addition, the longer they stay, the more likely more will fall ill. An invisible tiny enemy has brought them to their knees.

Disease has stalled even killed some of the toughest, persistent, and well-provisioned adventurers in history. Strange fevers, boils, sores, pox, food poisoning, parasitic worms, STD’s, and animal born infections have plagued adventurers and military campaigns throughout history. With disease being such an important factor concerning exploration and conquest, a clever Game-Master (GM) would be foolish not to make use of that side of nature.

Disease is an underutilized tool in the GM Toolshed and can add to the danger and feeling of a setting. Disease is a world-class force. It can thwart adventurers, jamb the wheels of imperialism, stop the machines of war dead, and even curtail history. However, with all things in the game world, diseases need to be broken down into a few basic ideas.

There are three aspects to diseases in respect to roleplaying games that are important. These are Contagion Rate, the Incubation Period, and the Disease Vector(s) through which the sickness perpetuates. The Contagion Rate refers to how contagious the disease is, percentiles can easily represent this. This represents how easily the disease can transfer to an individual. The percentile rate would mean that the exposed character is potentially infected. After this determination, the GM should refer to the game mechanics for what happens next. If the character succumbs to the infection then the symptoms of the disease are often not immediately noticeable.

Symptoms and the main effects of the disease will appear after the Incubation Period of the specific disease has passed. Incubation Period refers to how long the disease remains dormant in an infected host; it can still be contagious at this stage. After exposure a character can walk around apparently unaffected for however long the Incubation Period lasts which can ranged anywhere from a few hours to days even years! They can remain infectious during this period as well. Often the more infectious a disease is the shorter the incubation time. A highly infectious disease that has a short incubation time is a plague in the waiting although the quicker the incubation then the quicker the outbreak is likely to burn itself out.

Finally, the third idea is the Disease Vector. A vector is the agent that carries the disease to its living host, which can be a living organism or a medium like dust. The infection vectors that can spread a disease are many but the main ones to keep in mind are those that travel through wounds, insect bites, animals (feces & diseased individuals, corpses), and those that are airborne or hide in improperly prepared or stored food. Adventurers need to make sure their food has not spoiled or been contaminated. They should beware of corpses they have not killed themselves. Adventurers also need to care for their wounds even small scratches especially when traversing bodies of water or marsh areas. Of course, they also need to learn how to deal with biting insects especially mosquitoes and flies.

Infection can get into open wounds through direct contact with such vectors as dirty clothes, water, mud, and general filth. The improper cleaning of deep wounds is begging for infection. A good example of the result of an infection through wound contamination with serious consequences is gangrene. Gangrene results in fever and possibly the loss of limbs and death not to mention the stench of rotting flesh. Note that gangrene also results from a lack of circulation but the form we are concerned with is the result of bacterial infection.

Animal and insect bites are another major vector for diseases. The most obvious one is rabies, if the animal is foaming at the mouth its bite is something to avoid. However, certain animals that are carriers are not so easy to avoid. Vampire bats prey upon sleeping warm-blooded victims. Another infamous example is of the Tsetse fly and its transmission of sleeping sickness not to mention the mosquito born malaria and dengue and yellow fevers. Even such hard to avoid insects such as ticks that can carry lime disease.

To finish off the potential vectors of interest to GMs are airborne infections and of course food poisoning. Spoiled food is a major hazard and may transmit mild to severe effects. This usually depends on the type of food, where it came from, and how it was prepared. Also, food contaminated through contact with other vectors such as insects or contaminated water becomes a medium for disease. Another way food can shelter the enemy is by eating infected animals, which may be still within the incubation period.

Airborne vectors come about when inhaling germs in miasmatic environs such as gas spewing swamps or burbling cesspits. This includes sharing space with infected individuals with no contact other than breathing the same air. Here, the disease uses the medium of air launched in aerosol form by a cough or sneeze. Good examples of the types of diseases that can spread via these vectors are influenza and the Hanta virus via the dust from rodent droppings. In certain cases, even the wind can become a vector. Another medium that is worth visiting is that of water.

Waterborne infections can afflict individuals that drink spoiled or stagnant water. Contaminated water can also infect food that comes into contact with it especially during preparation. Examples of the diseases that travel via water are Dysentery, Typhoid fever, and Guinea Worm. Adventurers should always be suspicious of bodies of water they encounter and not just because of leeches and piranha either. However, in fantasy roleplaying games there are a few mitigating factors even in the more primitive of settings.

In RPGs, certain game aspects can mitigate the disease factor. These three disease negating factors are characters that have the ability to heal others aka Healers, potions or elixirs, and magic.

Healers are characters that have the ability to heal other characters of both damage and cure diseases or at least ease their symptoms. They can achieve this mystically or with some version of medicine. If disease is a major feature in a setting, these characters become very valuable party members. However, even when Healers are traveling with an expedition that party may want some backup in the form of potions.

Potions when consumed heal damage and some can even cure disease. These are usually of a magical nature but sometimes the fantasy separates chemistry, alchemy, and magic into separate areas. This separation does not concern us here, as the mere existence of potions is effective in combating disease. The only factors to consider are availability (who makes them and how long does it take) and cost in both time and money. Meaning the majority of people will not be able to afford these life-saving potions. Alternately, if they can it still might be a rare thing. This is especially true if the disease requires a specific cure or type of potion. As the nature of potions often falls into the realm of magic so magic itself must be taken into consideration.

Although healing abilities and potions fall under the purview of magic, they are different strategies due to availability and cost. Unless someone has access to a healer they do not have the luxury of the healer’s abilities and if they cannot find a supply of potions then the same. The same can be said of magic items that may offer protection or even healing abilities to their wielder. These are more accessible to the makers of such items and fall into adventurers’ possession more frequently than others’.

Magic items are more accessible than a Healer’s abilities. This is simply because all one has to do is wield the item instead of becoming a healer. They are also more durable than potion bottles thus granting a more portability. Also they are more than likely good for more than a single use. Frankly, the advantage of a disease fighting magical item is so great that it becomes a necessary piece of kit. This is not to diminish a mage or wizard that has disease curing spells but again access is the issue, there must be such a spell-caster present.

In a world of limited scientific knowledge and where magic is known to exist  how would disease be treated? Just as importantly, how is the welfare of those unfortunate enough to be suffering from infection handled? Historically, disease shaped communities and whole eras of civilization (syphilis, HIV/AIDS, Black Death, leprosy). This includes the formation of colonies and places meant to isolate and imprison diseased individuals. A bustling snake oil industry and quack businesses will spring up. A historical parallel would be the patent medicines of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Disease shapes affected communities especially if there is no cure. How society deals with and treats the so affected is important. The example of lepers is especially notorious. Lepers were made to ring bells warning the healthy members of society that they were coming whenever they were traveling in towns and cities if not barred from entry. Lepers were even forced (occasionally voluntarily) into colonies often on small faraway islands or isolated facilities.

With laws and forced isolation imposed on victims of disease also comes scapegoating. This being applied to not only the infected but also those that were believed to carry the infection. This includes those accused of deliberately planting the sickness by contaminating water wells or poisoning food by means of witchcraft.  These scapegoats may be particular creatures or locations, enemies, social minorities, or newly arrived adventurers or adventurers in general. This also may include a belief that a specific disease is particular to a certain community.

The efforts to prevent infection will range from reliance on certain organizations (religious, mages, alchemy, charlatans, etc.) to enforced cleanliness or misguided efforts thereof. Cities and towns could forbid certain types of individuals from entering due to the belief that they are carriers.

Disease is a world shaping force that stops invasions dead, halts the movement of goods, money, and troops, altering history. The outbreak of plagues can sweep over the entire planet wiping out whole swaths of civilization leaving an indelible mark on the surviving culture. There are Plagues (an extreme version of a specific disease) that can alter the world as it circulates the globe wiping out towns and cities.  International trade can even become a vector such as in the case of the Black Plague and medieval Europe. Small outbreaks can stall wars, halt invasions, wipe out small communities, and kill kings.

However, disease, especially plagues, can not only negatively affect the population but also have severe economic repercussions and even present new opportunities. Patent Medicines (real or snake oil) can come about to fill the need effective or not. Quacks may proliferate. The collapse of trade may occur with the isolation of cities or rural areas needed for trade. The reduction of the work force by extreme measure is not only a tragedy but also thereby giving them more power to demand better treatment and pay.

In June 1381, 35 years after the Black Death had swept England, the Peasant Rebellion occurred led by Wat Tyler from Kent. The peasant army from Kent and Essex marched on London and captured the Tower of London. One motivating factor of this peasant force was that during the plague they had been granted their freedom and paid to work the estates of the aristocracy. The aristocracy did this in order to keep them from leaving during the labor shortage created by the plague. The peasants were afraid that they would lose these newly won privileges. Plagues damage the laborer population, which leads to a downturn in production of materials and crops for at least a decade and increases the economic and political clout of labor and the lower classes. It actually turns the world upside down.

Diseases in RPGs are of value to the GM. Diseases can act as an obstacle to PCs, give certain specialized Healer characters an important role to play, and alter NPCs in dramatic ways. The knowledge of the potential diseases they may face may give the PCs pause and even alter their travel routes. A diseased member of a PC expedition may slow down or stop the group dead especially if more than one of their number is infected. This in and of itself presents its own challenge. That challenge being to find shelter and/or a place to recuperate and recover their bearings.

Introducing these illnesses into your world allows the Healer character to do something seemingly small. However, do not be afraid to demonstrate to the other PCs that disease can take quite a toll even if it only is stalling them for a while. Sickness can also alter infected NPCs in a way that can engage players and give the GM more tools to work with. Examples are lepers, sick and dying kids as a source of empathy/sympathy or an adventure hook, dying beggars, the dying and kind old person but for a cure scenario.

Making use of diseases can help a GM to enhance their game. They have a tool that can halt armies, delay or kill adventurers, alter the functions of an NPC, and put up a barrier to egress in a remote area. It can add to the flavor of a game as well as engendering some mild danger or at least another sum that the Players will have to calculate. Not to mention the fear factor built up via dialogue delivered by the NPCs to the Players.

Microorganisms can stall adventuring parties and armies alike as well as strike down the lowliest peasant as well as the mightiest king. Adding disease to your campaign world can enrich the background as well as alter the roles of NPCs, Healers, and mages. In this same scenario potions and magic items that house healing and disease fighting abilities become more useful and therefore valuable. Certain vectors especially certain insects may become a symbol of terror to PCs who become cognizant of the risk and the need to prepare for an excursion beforehand. Disease as a part of a living campaign world is an invaluable tool for the discerning GM and a valuable source of drama and immersion for Players.

Tabletop Meditations #16: Old Empires

In any given fantasy RPG, but by no means all of them, a remnant empire or a landscape littered withRuins of an empire the bones of an ancient empire sometimes mysterious oft times still vaguely powerful. Old empires appear throughout fantasy and thus many fantasy tabletop roleplaying games. Using this trope makes it a little easier to begin to build your own setting using this as the basis for a dark age or at least an age where the empire is in a state of decline this loss of power being vital to adventuring.

Ancient empires lend a sense of history, which can still be seen and sometimes experienced to a game world. They can provide explanations for some of gaming’s oldest tropes, especially for the ubiquitous dungeon, and present adventure hooks in the forms of artifacts, lost knowledge, and explorable ruins. The old empire (or empires) that may be present in a given fantasy world also carry their own tropes and various resemblances to those of real-world history. Old empires are useful to the GM in the context of RPG campaigns but also carry certain disadvantages.

When speaking of empires there are certain terms that are inseparable in most incarnations of this fantasy trope. These are Empire, Imperium, and Citizen.

The word empire carries with it some baggage in and of itself due to actual history and it conjures a very specific type of image. In the popular imagination, the word empire often conjures to mind the imperial wonders of the ancient world, marble statues massive multi-columned buildings and/or massive armies that could drink lakes and inland seas dry. Of course, in the modern context however it also brings to mind the subjugation of indigenous peoples, the snatching of land, and constant wars of conquest.

Today the word empire is used to describe an extensive state made up of several ethnic groups but ruled by only one of them.  It has, at least since the early 20th century, also carried the suggestion of tyranny and brutality, inherited from the practices of modern European colonial powers. [Grafton, Anthony, ed. 2010. The Classical Tradition. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass. Empire. pg.310]

The imperial entity also means the mass rule of law and an enforced order over a given territory. An empire allows for widespread civility allowing the gentler aspects of civilization to take hold as well as providing the structure for the crueler aspects of humankind to prevail (the argument for barbarism as told by R.E. Howard). Education and philosophy blossom as well as giving a chance for cults and even gangs (a criminal underworld) to appear.

Imperium refers, in common use, to the empire and its forces sometimes with exclusion to its people. Here it serves more as a reference to its machinery rather than its people or possessions. More often, it is synonymous to Empire and often it is used for both. However, it is actually a reference to the territorial reach and extent of the empire. “One thing all the various meanings of the word imperium have in common is the association between extended territorial dominion and military rule.” [Grafton. 310] This basic definition is as old as Rome and is less vague than the casual usages. “As early as the 1st century BCE, the Roman historian Sallust had used the phrase Imperium romanum to describe not merely the power but also the geographical extent of the authority of the Roman people.” [Grafton. 310]

When it comes to the term Citizen when speaking of empires this refers to those individuals that the Imperium sees as the core of its existence often making official capacity to accommodate that (or those) group(s) cultural traditions and to those that it has a legal and/or philosophical responsibility. Note also that there will be some legality involved with citizenship handled by an imperial bureaucracy. The reality of citizenship however is always an unpredictable affair and will vary throughout the history of the empire. In game terms, imperial citizens are often snobby and serve as exemplars of over-civilized fops that are incapable of not getting themselves killed not just in the wilds of the world but in the rural farmlands as well.

IMPERIAL CITIZENS are so civilized that they have given up WAR in favour of POLITICS and POISON. The Management considers this effete and will direct you to feel contempt for most of these people, except the Emperor, until you come upon the elderly man who retains the old virtues of the Empire. A former General, he is totally trustworthy and warlike and scorns politics too. He will become a staunch supporter of the Tour and of great help either on the QUEST or in SAVING THE WORLD. [Jones, Diana Wynne. 2006. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Revised and Updated Edition. pg.95]

An empire from the POV of a player in an RPG setting on the other hand is one of a civilizing force that carries with it a corrupting force as well as the violent force of law. It seems a bit libertarian but when it comes to a group of often somewhat individually powerful freewheeling adventurers their world view is one of reaping the benefits by hook or by crook from the landscape, evil forces, monsters, and its people. A functioning empire of course impedes this ravenous impulse of the rapacious adventurer with its far reach, armed authorities, and system of laws not to mention a potentially oppressive and faceless bureaucracy.

Even in its different phases an empire always affects the Players. A dying empire is an impediment to be overcome and its authorities avoided if possible. A long dead one presents opportunity in its corpse where adventurers can pick its bones clean. Of course, this can also happen with a dying empire in its last throes with players aligned with the barbarians at the gate perhaps riding the barbaric tide as it were, or following in its wake, or caught between a desperate authority and a savage horde.

In fantasy worlds, old empires typically have a single seed from which they are grown, a trope that helps to characterize the nature of the empire and what role it is itself to play within the game. The most common tropes are the Ancient Empire, the Lost Empire, the Evil Empire, and the Vestigial Empire.

The Ancient Empire often long gone, if not it is often senile and rapidly disintegrating, is a very common trope. It concerns a long existent imperial power that either has passed or is passing. Most of the world shares a common origin from within this type of old empire and if not from its peoples then from among its knowledge and maybe customs. These types of old empires help to build a historical foundation for a setting laying in a base layer of information in the setting giving the players a sense of history as they experience its artifacts and their characters share in its heritage. Heritage being writing, architecture, and economics, which may live on long after the empire, has died.

As this Ancient Empire was wide reaching and of course would have been involved in large engineering projects, it has left an indelible mark on the landscape not just the people and their cultures.

ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS tend to litter the landscape in some parts of the continent. Most of them are quite mysterious, and all of them are made of some substance not known to the present inhabitants, often of a greenish colour, or a matte black, though white is not unknown. They will be gigantic. Most of them will be pillars that touch the clouds, but ROADS and broken BRIDGES are common too. It is unknown what challenge caused earlier peoples to make things that were so very large. Most of them are no use to anyone. [Jones. 4]

Lost Empires on the other hand are often not as far reaching and are widely believed to be extinct.  Within the game, they serve as a foundation for mythoi, as hidden enemies or saviors, or holders/discoverers of special knowledge.  A lost empire is an empire that has somehow disappeared from history and any information on it lay in vague historical accounts, clues in place names and legends. It seems only to exist within the odd bit or curiosity that can be found by the players within myth and folklore or that they simply happen upon in the course of an adventure.

An important aspect of a Lost Empire found in fantasy RPGs are Remnant (Lost) Cities. These lost cities are tracked down through a string of clues and can exist as still functioning locales though in complete isolation a la Shangri-La or as hidden and mostly intact i.e. not pillaged ruins. A Lost Empire can also serve as a mythic foundation for stories and the explanation for any strange anomalies such as dungeons as well as certain exotic places and anomalous peoples (not always human) of the world.

In addition, a Lost Empire can serve as a nebulous threat or even enemy striking from the shadows from beyond the mists of history. These enemies must be detected, discovered, and ferreted out by the PCs. These hidden people may also serve as secret saviors to be sought, or a secret repository of special knowledge that lays hidden for the PCs to quest for.

This brings us to the unavoidable Evil Empire, which always serves as an active villain sometimes doubling as an end of the world trope. This is most often the active type of empire though the Evil Empire can also be a disintegrating ancient empire though now evil if it has not always been so due to degradation and always a definite threat. This type of ancient empire is an active villain for the players to confront and maybe even try to topple. These sorts of powers often play into the end-of-the-world trope as well sometimes possessing the power of the apocalypse other times seeking it. Usually the McGuffin said world-ending power (often an object or artifact) could instantly put an end to the evil empire instead when the PCs get involved.

Finally, we arrive at the Vestigial Empire, an empire that serves as background and mood than anything else. It is just a contrast to the wilderness and its citizens the opposite of adventurers.

VESTIGIAL EMPIRE. […] This Empire occupies an area usually slightly larger than most other COUNTRIES and you will know you are in it because the ROADS will be well made and patrolled by Imperial GUARDS in HELMETS and SKIRTS. Rest-houses line the way, a day’s march apart. The LANDSCAPE will be full of prosperous farmlands, vineyards, and olive groves, and you may even see a little light INDUSTRY, such as pottery and carpet-making. White villas crown the hills – in fact, most BUILDINGS in the Empire are white. When you reach the imperial CITY, you will find TEMPLES and colonnades as well as streets of decent houses, drains, and public Baths. The aura of civilization extends to daily life too. The Vestigial Empire is the only Country on the Tour to have POLITICS. It has a parliament and a senate and many noble CLANS to jockey for power. This keeps all Imperialists very busy, very noisy, and very likely to POISON one another. They also […] understand MONEY in a truly civilized way. [Jones. 216]

This does not mean that the Vestigial Empire was always as it is it could be the remnant of a once great ancient empire and the relics of its greatness strewn across the land. Essentially a Vestigial Empire is exactly what its name implies it often serves little actual purpose to the setting and is not necessarily any kind of impediment to the PCs, an annoyance perhaps or a place to trade but that is all. Essentially, the Vestigial Empire serves as a rest stop for the PCs and marks the line separating civilization and barbarism (according to imperialist thought).

Now if I may digress a little, there is a seminal fantasy world where old empires as an explicit idea simply do not really exist though an argument can be made for the Elves. In J.R.R. Tolkien it does seems that world lacks an Old Empire.  I have always felt this lacuna when confronting the Legendarium. It seems to need at least one Old Empire in order to stitch together some of the cultures in that world.

An example being the Rohirrim, only a single regional kingdom codifies their culture. As a people, they simply descended and gathered from other people through time. Their consistency of culture seems hard to achieve in that manner alone. However, where this cultural glue seems to lack the most is with the Easterlings. Granted they follow Sauron though he seems to function more as a god or object of reverence and worship than an actual king or lord. It seems they would need unification by a powerful overlord. Joined into a single cultural force before being forged into a war machine by a powerful overlord that rules them rather than influences them from afar.

Tolkien’s world is filled with ruins but ruins of the fortresses of petty kings and lords, there is no Alexander, Rome, Ch’ing, or even Attila to serve as a basis for a united regional culture just individual heroes. His Legendarium is more concerned with lineage and personal family histories rather than politics or even major cultural diversity except where it comes to language and race. The Legendarium is more a collection of heroic stories, songs, and tales documenting the plight of certain families and individuals than a world history. So in that respect Old Empires are basically completely absent, the Elves are very similar to the Rohirrim though the ruins of their younger days tend to be more widespread.

Concerning RPGs, Old Empires are useful to Game-Masters especially with the values that can be drawn from the historical. The GM can draw from history to provide not just inspiration but also some basic facts about what an actual empire was capable of not just in temperament but technological innovation and in the development of the arts. Instead of making up value and legal systems from scratch, the GM can obtain them from history already fully laid out and time tested in both practice and enforcement.

Examples of this historical wealth are found with the Roman and Chinese empires. From the Roman the primary points being the military machine, its extreme emphasis on order, running water, a senate or discernible governing body later to be usurped by an emperor. With the Chinese its vast armies and their military organization/logistics, the capability of the mass production of goods especially arms, the development of writing, philosophy, and medicine. These are all various civilized developments, systems and discoveries that can only be advanced or even made within a stable civilization of a certain level of advancement.

The Prime Uses of an Old Empire within an RPG campaign are many. Building an Old Empire into the past of a setting can help to explain common gaming tropes like dungeons, make its heirs desperate to reclaim their “heritage” creating wider conflicts, and provide a foundational layer to the history of the world deepening its history.

Injecting History via an Old Empire provides an easy framework on which a GM can build a setting and giving their new world a sense of historical identity or lineage. This can drop clues for PCs to follow to long lost cities, leave behind valuable artifacts, and leave lost knowledge behind ripe for rediscovery. The places the adventuring PCs visit may have a visible lineage and unique identity linked to the old empire distinguished by architecture, place names, familial lineages, and political organizations.

Imperialism can serve as a motivator to both Players and the NPCs. Either can see the old empire as their heritage and want to reclaim some of that former glory. It can motivate NPC (sometimes Player) villainy through imperialism. “Just as the Roman empire had become the embodiment of the Stoic notion of the koinos nomos, the universal law for all mankind, so its heirs sought to impose their own legal and religious order on all the peoples they overran.” [Grafton. 310] An aging empire that is rapidly disintegrating may try to forge outward under new leadership or try to transform itself into a new power providing a dynamic changing backdrop where the PCs could stand to benefit from the ensuing chaos.

Old Empires can explain away Dungeons, Ruins, Artifacts, and other such RPG commonalities as its relics or ruins. As well as set the mood when traversing the ruins of its lost glory.

RUINS of former days, like ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS, litter Fantasyland. Only the large kind are important to the Tour, and even most of these will be just setting the mood. You are not expected to be happy on this Tour. The Ruins make you think of the sad losses of former days. But cheer up. Just occasionally you will find TREASURE in a Ruin. [Jones. 164]

Using old empires as a foundational component of your game world does have a few drawbacks. These disadvantages are Imperialist concepts inherent in an empire can overwhelm a game, the Players may become resentful of being restricted by existent imperial law and power, and old empires tend to be over-used in fantasy fiction.

This idea, old empires, is cliché territory when it comes to fantasy fiction but if the cliché is fun why not use it in an RPG campaign. As long as it doesn’t bore the Players or inhibit their characters to the point of strangling the fun out of the game it’s fine.

Imperialist concepts can begin to take hold of the game and cause certain in game tensions to become uncomfortable in real life. One of these concepts being slavery when based on certain superficial aspects of characters such as race and culture, which might get construed as stereotypes where characters may start expositing certain lines that smack of real world racism just with different names. Another example is the justifications for theft or domination, which may group certain characters together and the previous can happen the same way and may end up in slavery that then can proceed even further into the overlap.

Lastly, the PCs can become hateful of civilization within the game world and run amok if it becomes too oppressive of a force within the game. Players as well can simply become bored or frustrated with an empire that constantly boxes them in and thwarts their plans without fail. There has to be some holes to room to breathe even in a very powerful and extremely oppressive power’s demesne. Players will work hard against the odds if there is at least a glimmer of hope of success.

In conclusion, Old Empires are tropes of fantasy fiction but in terms of tabletop RPGs, they are still useful and hold some fascinating avenues to explore. Old Empires are useful to GM’s when building a history for their world and providing an explanation for the origins of some fantasy RPG tropes such as dungeons and monster haunted ruins. There are disadvantages of course when using old empires in your game. You run the risk of tramping on old clichés, letting imperialist thinking to overwhelm your fantasy, and alienating your players through the over-application of imperial will.

However, the advantages of a successful implementation of an old empire (or empires) in your game can outweigh the negatives. A successful implementation takes some lessons, inspiration, and facts from history, avoids the standard tropes though a twist on or subversion of the idea, and makes sure it enhances the fun at the table!

Handling Game Flow in Tabletop RPGs

Another hubpages article from Robert A. Neri Jr. about Game Flow in tabletop RPGs.

The article examines the derailment of a campaign resulting from flattening action and lack of player engagement. It proposes a solution and some tricks to get the game back on track.

The most common problem that Game-Masters have to face is that of managing and maintaining the flow of the game and what to do if it stagnates. How to keep the campaign from running aground?

Read it Here

Tabletop Meditations #10: Death

Mentioning the grim reaper conjures up the gruesome image of death, a worm-eaten skeleton cloaked in rot-black and bearing a scythe used to cut-down the living like chaff which manifests personally or through its followers especially in the fantasy realms of role-playing games. Whatever its guise it is inevitably an inescapable force as present in the fictional universe as it is a process in the actual and it is inevitable that Player Characters (PCs) will die on occasion. How should the player, the Game-Master (GM), and the adventurer group as a whole handle it when a Player Character (PC) is cut-down in their prime?

When characters are killed regardless of the cause or where the fault may lie and ignoring such phenomena as DoDs (Dungeons of Death) and Killer GMs, it can have an emotional impact on the player and on the course of the campaign in general. The player’s feeling of loss probably originates from losing something that they have in effect birthed directly from their imaginations and possibly spent quite some time molding, building and adapting. Players in other words tend to specialize in their characters making all transitions to new characters, not just due to death either, fairly difficult. The intimate knowledge the player has of their character has to be let go, partially forgotten in order for them to move on. Such options as building a character of a different race, culture, or character class than their former character can help as well as preventing them from consciously or unconsciously recreating their old character.

The player may also feel the emotional impact of sudden loss which is comprised of surprise, disappointment, and what amounts to the sting of ‘losing the game’. Of course as individuals, players will feel any combination of the previous and at varying degrees. Any shame or scorn the group heaps upon them due to their negative reaction or visible disappointment will only magnify these negative feelings and will discourage new players from returning and may give them second thoughts about joining any other gaming groups they may encounter in the future. A sensible amount of sensitivity in these situations is usually called for although if a character dies in a bizarre, stupid, or just plain comedic way, then laughing at it or telling stories about it in good humor are typically not out of line. Criticism of how the player directed their character can wait however allowing for a little time to pass (probably until the next game session) and should come in the form of helpful non-condescending advice.

When PCs die it has the most immediate and most emotional impact on the PC’s player but it also can throw a major wrench into the GMs plans and send the campaign head-on into a dead-end or cause it to tailspin into chaos. This occurs when the dead character was involved in at least one important unresolved plotline. Even unimportant plotlines can have a cumulative effect on the campaign if the number of unresolved plots tied to a dead character is numerous. Some of said plots will be simply cut-off essentially being resolved by the character’s death unable to continue but may still leaving behind a feeling of irresolution. This sense of incompletion can be used by the Game-Master to generate some new hooks. This remains true for those threads that are vitally important to the campaign as well. The sense of needing to have an end to these loose-ends is an opening and chance to catch the attentions of the living PCs.

In the advent of character death the GM needs to make a quick assessment as to exactly which plotlines have been cut-off and which simply leave the group with a feeling of emptiness and which are necessary to steer the campaign. The GM needs to think of ways to reattach the important threads back to the surviving members if they have not already done so in the course of play up to that point. At the very least, the GM needs alternate lines, back-up plans, to work around the loss or drop clues so as to cause the survivors to seek out the loose threads. The GM, with the player’s permission, can also use this as an opportunity to clue the other PCs in on certain hidden aspects of the dead character letting them get to know the deceased character in an indirect way adding a little more deepness to the game.

This all rides on the assumption of course that death is not something that is easy to overcome. In role-playing games and especially those in the fantasy genre, the settings tend to alter the nature of death itself making it in some situations more an inconvenience rather than the ultimate fate of a living being. This is reliant on how death is treated in the setting material, by the GM, and by the player group. Magical resurrection is typically the solution to “bring back” dead characters so any dependent plots are only temporarily stalled taking some of the difficulty from the role of the GM reducing death to a simple narrative device. Of course, there are other implications to this approach both mechanically and sociologically/philosophically in respect to the game world. The effects on the attitudes of the world’s occupants can range from complete indifference to the phenomena of death to outright non-morality when it comes to certain actions such as murder. What does it matter if the victim will be resurrected easily even though there may still be psychological damage to tend with after suffering such a trauma? Mechanically the questions to answer regarding resurrection are its availability, its difficulty, and stipulations (if any). All three points can and should be regulated by the GM but if the GM is using material authored by a third-party such as a purchased setting and/or supplements their hands may be tied, especially if the group objects, the alteration may ‘break’ the setting/world, or the GM has already set an in-game precedent (probably for plot convenience).

There are 3 basic mechanical approaches to the nature of death in an RPG: Resurrection, Permanent Death (also referred to as Perma-Death), and No-Death. The thrill of narrowly avoiding death is a great motivator for players and is the primary (and for the GM easiest) source of suspense in dire situations. Precluding death of any kind when regarding the PCs eliminates this and in effect does reduce the fun a bit although it will make all the players feel “safe” foisting more weight onto the shoulders of the GM to set-up the thrills. Another trade-off to this approach is that the GM doesn’t have to worry about random deaths throwing a wrench into their plans. Players should feel that there is risk in the game world concerning their characters. This opens an easy avenue for the GM to create tension. But the GM should stop short of just “knocking one off” just to send a message to their players. Done right death will be a palpable presence in the game whenever the players pick up their dice in a risky situation. Death also opens the possibility of death-defying heroics and the potential for self-sacrifice. Characters can suffer near-death experiences and players can enjoy or suffer the excitement of escaping the slavering jaws of death some may even make it a habit to tempt death whenever they can precluding the need to make an “example” out of anyone. However, this approach can elevate emotions and exacerbate player reaction if a PC bites it at the height of the action.

Permanent death may heighten the tension but it in my experience it seems to cause the players to tread a little too lightly especially if they’re attached to their characters they tend to want to err on the side of caution every time bogging the game down and reducing the potential for action immensely. Permanent death should be a shadow hanging over the PCs imaginary heads but there should always be a possibility for reversing the course (often magic or divine intervention become the narrative devices in this mode) though this option shouldn’t be easy or readily available to just anyone for reasons discussed previously.

Another aspect of in-game death that can become an issue is its level of apparent randomness. Random death is a real possibility when including death in the game (the dice do fall where they may). Basically this happens when without intending to the GM presents a situation where a PC is killed and the GM had planned otherwise. This is also true of NPCs though a dead NPC is easier to “write out” and find a way around their plotline also the emotional component is much less pronounced as well even if the NPC is well-liked maybe even beloved by the group. The players, without much need for sensitivity can treat NPC-death as a role-playing opportunity. Players should however mind the GM’s pride in such situations. Of course, death shouldn’t appear as too random to the point that players feel it doesn’t matter what they do, they’re just going to die anyway. If the players begin to take that attitude then the GM may have made things a bit too difficult and may need to pull it back a little.

The nature of death in TRPGs is largely determined by the participants and secondarily by the published materials that they are using. This is also largely true of what amounts to the afterlife of the deceased character as well. Sometimes a setting, usually fantasy settings, will have a literal afterlife for dead characters to progress into and possibly adventure through (sometimes even while their still living). This essentially creates a no-death situation when viewed at certain angles but generally disengages the sense of loss that should accompany death even if the separation from the in-game living may be there, it usually can be breached if it hasn’t already especially concerning certain RPG character archetypes. By the breaching of the barrier between life and death I do mean the actual ability to communicate with the dead, travel into the dimensions of the dead (the actual afterlife), or otherwise have a factual or working knowledge that there is indeed an afterlife and perhaps even its nature is also known. If the barrier remains intact and even if communication with the afterlife is possible, its nature remains ambiguous then the main question is about what has the dead PC left behind.

How is the dead character going to be remembered, what is the in-game legacy that they’ve left, and how long will it remain?  Players can treat the death of their characters as the final character development; in essence it is exactly that. It should be determined how they are remembered and how the NPCs that knew them will react such as building a monument, composing a song, the character’s name figuring into a legend or song of the event especially if there are witnesses. Also do not discount the heaping of scorn onto their name if they died foolishly and perhaps a divisive tract authored for manipulative purposes. What is the nature of their commemoration? If the character has relatives or offspring will they carry on the legacy of the dead character? The group as a whole with the GMs guidance should take some time and figure out what the legacy of the dead character is. This ad-hoc eulogy may also help to bring home the loss to the group providing for a somewhat solemn role-playing opp.

The legacy of the departed character consists of the lasting opinions of the NPCs that have encountered them or that had relationships with them including relatives and descendants. These opinions and whatever personal anecdotes a character, especially NPCs, carry may only last as long as the character themselves particularly if nothing was recorded or commemorative works composed with respect to the game world. It will also include any leftover material wealth which will definitely come to the attention of their companions probably more immediately than the GM would like. Any dwellings or items and literary works that the character has created or influenced in-game will stand as a testament to their existence within the game-world even leaving a legacy in the form of a uniquely customized item or weapon which can at least carry their name onward if not standing as a reminder of their story/legend. But as with most stories it’s the most sensational bit that will burn its image into the minds of the players, PCs, and NPCs. Probably the most critical part of the deceased’s legacy, the bit that will be the most likely remembered, is how they died.

With the inclusion of death as stated before there is the potential for the glorious heroic death and the potential for self-sacrifice. Critically this allows players the opportunities to commit their characters to the Good Death. Players should never be forced or pushed into sacrificing their characters; it should be their choice. The good death is a death that happens on the terms of the character for the most part and from their death the potential for something good and lasting to come of it. This can mean the player chooses to have their character face death with discipline and bravery and eyes wide open or have them fight to the bitter and all too obvious end. The good death is the player’s choice and that which plays to their character either displaying their personality, serving as a redeeming development, or a heroic end. The Good-Death in an odd way contributes to the wholeness of the character. Any way you cut it, it is the end of that character’s personal story but an end with a flourish that will be remembered (if there’s a witness to remember it that is).

A good death should carry some kind of meaning as well not just for the character themselves but especially for the player whose character it was. Hopefully this meaning carries over to the group as a whole and at its best will influence the campaign in a positive way. If nothing else it should inspire some interesting war-stories. A good death can help to soften the personal blow that the player feels as well. Of course, if the character dies randomly their death may just be a fact of in-game life.

RPG-Death should be reasonably random in nature and be somewhat defeatable under special circumstances. Death in role-playing games doesn’t and in most cases shouldn’t follow the parameters of Perma-Death and definitely not seem to be entirely random. It should serve in its primary capacity to add a definitive element of thrill and risk into the game as well as provide opportunities for the PCs for a Good Death and as the final character development rather than merely the bitter end of a character. Where the players may have to deal with the death of a character in personal terms the GM has to deal with the death of PCs and the sudden deaths of NPCs in primarily mechanical ones.

The GM must keep track of their plot-points and the threads which wind and braid throughout their campaign and have backup plans for the important plotlines as well as a finely-honed talent for quickly and neatly tying together severed plotlines when necessary especially when confronted with a sudden and unexpected character death. The GM should also keep in mind the mechanical capacities of the PCs so as not to have to experience the unintentional extermination of the entire adventuring group in what is known as the Total Party Kill (TPK) phenomena. There is no recovering a game from a TPK as everyone is probably going to have to generate new characters that will probably not have any meaningful connections with the previous characters at all though it is possible to generate PCs that are related in various ways to the former not to mention the use of apprentices, protégés, and squires. These may pick-up any dangling threads left over by their predecessors but will definitely not be able to pick back up every single one to reboot the previous campaign. Also GMs shouldn’t use character death to punish players or as an excuse to penalize them though there should be consequences (which can invest the players in their current or new characters even more if handled correctly). Basically, don’t intentionally try to kill PCs especially since sometimes Random Death can still rear its ugly head when you least expect it.

Death like most other components of TRPGs is an opportunity to deepen the game and add to the experience of all of the participants. It is a component which contains thrills, risk, and strong emotions in strange and varying amounts and which leaves an indelible mark on the memory. It is a very heavy subject even where concerning RPGs and is almost a living part of them as sometimes it can be just as unpredictable and out of the GMs hands as in real-life but the nature of which can be altered and borders regulated to maximize enjoyment and make the most of the game.

Tabletop Meditations #9: Campaign Structure

As a work of traditional fiction has a basic underlying structure so does a Tabletop Role-Playing Game (TRPG). Story, Plot(s), Scenes, and Story-Beats are the building blocks of traditional fiction. Likewise, the structure to a TRPG is built of a Campaign, Adventure(s), Episodes, and Play Units. As knowledge of the basic structures of fiction can help authors write their stories the knowledge of the basic structures found within TRPGs can help to sharpen a Game-master’s communication skills and adventure-writing/story-telling prowess. Both traditional fiction and role-playing games structures are tiered and begin with the most basic of building blocks, the smallest units composing those higher up with those of higher tiers increasing in complication. The most basic building block of a fictional narrative is the Story-Beat.

A Story-Beat is an emotive change in a character or exchange between characters (as in action/reaction) and which is replaced in RPG Narratology with the social exchange between the participants; these being the Game-Master (GM) and the Players. As the characters that are involved are the Player Characters (PCs) controlled by the players and the Non-Player Characters (NPCs) run by the GM is where the story-beats lie. The story-beats are smeared across realities that is they are present inside of the game world and outside the game world among the participants and as there is not always an emotive change marked in certain specific characters determined by a single author but is dependent on the exchange of information on what the characters are feeling and doing and how the players themselves are reacting to what is going on within the game. Since the emotional change so to speak is distributed over multiple people and existent partially in a shared fiction, it is the exchange of information between these participants and frames of experience (a la Frame Analysis) that is of importance here with each single exchange between participants known as a Play Unit.

GMs should take note, always take down notes by the way, of the exchanges that seem to be important either those that contain a nugget of info that the GM can play on later, those that apply directly to the current action in the game, and those that may hint or directly spell-out character traits and especially player interest and reaction. GMs should initiate exchanges with vivid and characterized descriptions playing to the interest of the players and/or their characters in order to hook them immediately. It is also vital that the GM’s narration contain enough information for the players to act on but not overwhelm them with too many extraneous details. It should entice the players to ask questions and/or act maintaining longer and more frequent exchanges improving the overall flow of a campaign. These exchanges are what construct the game world in the minds of all the participants. Multiple Play Units will build a single fictive scene.

In fiction a Scene is a unit of action within a story marked by a change of time or place (change of scene) and which contains an event which moves the story forward. Note that the entrance of other characters can also demarcate scenes. Essentially the same can be said of TRPGs save that sometimes the demarcation of a scene is more reliant on the presentation of a question, puzzle, or problem by the GM without the scene changing in time or place with characters dying in between these exchanges as well as certain characters simply vanishing or becoming suddenly scarce altering the scene, meaning it’s slightly less structured strictly speaking. Thusly, within the context of RPG Narratology it is probably more befitting to call these units Episodes instead of scenes. An episode in the context of TRPG narratology is a related grouping of related Play Units where the setting/background does not have to be fixed. An example of this is a conversation between 2 PCs while walking through a magic portal beginning before they walked through and continuing through and on the other side, the backdrop changes radically but the episode is composed of the exchanges between the PCs. This somewhat transient notion in TRPGs can be difficult when trying to translate between traditional narrative and TRPG narrative especially in such instances as trying to blog a personal (or a character’s) tabletop experiences. Those that blog their experiences around the table may try to demarcate portions of the campaign by Session instead of by traditional narrative units or even those of TRPGs being discussed here.

However, a TRPG session is not a very appropriate unit as it contains both real-world interaction and the exchanges between participants which build the fantasy world of the game. In addition, as most game sessions often run a few to several hours, there will be tons of information most of it being extraneous to the narrative the blogger may be pursuing aside from the world-building elements. A full session will also probably not have a clean break at the end or a cleanly demarcated beginning especially if the session begins on a continuation of a battle which began last session or on such an incident which has stretched across several sessions. Thus, a single session can consist of several Episodes strictly speaking and may not even contain whole Episodes at the beginning and ending. Not to mention distributed episodes, that is small exchanges or incidents that connect into a single episode but which are not temporally contiguous (they don’t follow each other in occurrence), are separated by other unrelated exchanges and/or episodes or are otherwise composed of out-of-sequence Play Units.

When writing or setting up for episodes a GM need only bank on multiple exchanges where they hope to end on a desirable result from their perspective. Basically, the GM will want the PCs to end up after this series of exchanges in a place or situation that either leads directly to another planned episode or that which they believe that they can work with, giving them fodder for more episodes further down the line. Keeping Play Units and Episodes in mind a GM can structure their thoughts and ideas while running the game and writing for their campaign. A game-master can learn to keep tidbits of info in mind and group them together later when it comes time to act on them in-game helping to form the threads that run through campaigns which the GM’s writing and narration helps to bind together into adventures.

Multiple related Episodes will accumulate to build an Adventure which may or may not be consecutive or broken up among episodes that take the Campaign in different directions or digressions which will matter later connecting to other non-contiguous episodes or future episodes. Basically in fiction this is Plot/plotlines. Plot is a sequence of events divided into Scenes each single scene often presenting a single event. A fictive plot is constructed of a sequence of scenes (as are Subplots but for the purposes of this article there is really no distinction between Plots and Subplots). A minimum of 3 scenes construct the traditional plot in fiction with a beginning, middle, and end type of striation within the text. In a TRPG, plot is essentially constructed of 3 vital exchanges or episodes which are Presentation, Complication, and Twist. As the building blocks of a TRPG plot is constructed of a series of bundles of exchanges guided by the writing (the GM’s and any other authors of any of the material they may be utilizing for the game as well) within the context of the game world and which is very mercurial and apt to change direction and nature suddenly and unpredictably even from the GM’s perspective, it is most useful to refer to TRPG Plot as an Adventure. An Adventure is a single plotline that can be followed through a campaign referring only to the game and meta-game elements necessary to communicate said plot.

An adventure is of course slightly more complex than the previous two lower tier structures (Play Units and Episodes). As stated before an adventure is composed of three parts which are Presentation, Complication, and Twist. These component parts need not be in equal size or be executed in roughly equal spans of time (either real or in-game). Each component is however, an episode. Presentation refers to an exchange initiated by the GM which presents information that gives the players something to be solved or acted upon in such a way as to lead them to another scene or episode though whether the players follow this to the next episodic component of the current adventure is unpredictable and may require the GM to make another go at the Presentation or put a hold on the current adventure to go on a player-fueled tangent. The next in the strict sequence of episodes that build an adventure is Complication.  A complication is the consequences of the players’ action(s) or an additional bit of information which throws a wrench into the players’ plans basically it’s a bump in the road or any type of obstruction separating the players from their goals that they otherwise couldn’t predict or that didn’t exist beforehand. The solution that they find should ideally lead them to the next component episode, the Twist. ‘Twist’ refers to yet another unforeseen consequence of the players’ current action(s)/previous solution, or the addition of another element by the GM which the players probably didn’t plan on appearing; this element however should have had clues as to its nature and its possible appearance scattered throughout the previous episodes that the players have already played through.

The episodic structure of adventures can be demonstrated in certain methods of writing adventures, adventure in the sense of current common usage that is, such as the Hook, Line & Sinker (HLS) format which structures adventures into 3 tiers. This structure though does not have to be limited to just 3 episodes it may take more to get the PCs to go along with it (if they ever do which is probably a hint to the GM to just drop it and present something else) or for them to progress through each single stage. The HLS format puts the plot-hook in the beginning episode to immediately try to capture the players’ attention by having the GM play to their characters’ motivations but a GM should also try to play on the players’ interests as well. Basically, it’s giving the players a reason to act and can also be inserted between the Presentation and Complication stages as well if the PCs were initially uninterested. Placing this ‘reason’ at the very beginning places a fair amount of trust in the players’ abilities not just to pick up on it but also their will to act on it. Putting it off until it can be used as the bridge between the Presentation and Complication phases can give the players more to latch onto adding to the likelihood of their taking action.

This brings us to the overarching super-structure underlying both fiction and TRPGs. In fiction this structure which is composed from the bottom up of Story-Beats, Scenes, and Plot is Story. A Story is the text resulting from the totality of the aforementioned structures with the addition of characters, details, and the background (that may or may not involve world-building) in which the events of the story take place. Of course, these underlying structures which authors of fiction use to construct their stories vary so much from those of TRPGs at this point it is probably more efficient to call the Story of a TRPG a Campaign. A Campaign is the totality of all of the game and meta-game exchanges, participant characters (both PCs and NPCs), any material that the GM used regardless of original source or author(s), and the game world where the campaign has taken place. It is from this accumulation of detail and narration from which the participants can extract their personal narratives from the point of view as either their character(s), as a player, or a combination of the two. It is also in this higher tier structure where the world-building occurs as world-building is done through the accumulation of information gleaned from the gaming material and from the information drawn or resulting from certain exchanges and demonstrated in certain episodes. Adventures help to propel the characters and thus players through this shared world which they not only can alter through the actions of their characters but also help to construct episodically.

A TRPG Campaign is built of adventures, episodes, and finally communicative exchanges between the participants called Play Units. Knowledge of these basic structures will allow the GM to plot out adventures and help their improvisation technique when dealing with at-the-table exchanges within the context of the game world which serves as the sandbox for the players. Game-masters can seize control of their writing through the use of the 3-tier structure of adventures and can collect information learned from certain episodes to direct the flow of the campaign. They can break down the campaign and its subsequent adventures into episodes allowing them to find and pick up lost threads (ones not intentionally dropped that is) within the campaign and gain a deeper knowledge of the PCs and maybe even their players perhaps even themselves (when it comes to gaming style).

Tabletop Meditations #8: Magic

Magic in RPG’s can be approached in one of two primary fashions by the game system itself. These tworpg theory - magic ways are essentially defined as Magic as Technology and Technology as Magic. The latter, Technology as Magic, starts in the known, the audience already has a fair idea of how it works, and works to create mystery by obscuring the knowledge of the audience of said technology with the ignorance of its characters often substituting mystical names for technological terms. Magic as Technology on the other hand, begins with the unknown and has to strain to quantify magic as technology using its own mystical terms. Basically one simply obscures known machinery and the other tries to construct said machinery from a fuzzy set of its own rules. It is from these core ideas that each builds its atmosphere and all other aspects of its magic.

In the context of TRPGs (Tabletop Role-Playing Games) this means that the way the rules that govern the magic system and the flavor of that system will be dependent on which core idea it’s using. Fantasy TRPGs need a rule-system whether this system integrates certain aspects of the game such as magic into the core system or uses a separate more modular approach the system will have to deal with magic using rules. Essentially in fantasy-gaming the ill-logic of magic is logically structured.

“Fantasy was accompanied by strict rationality: players followed complex rules laid out in dauntingly thick rulebooks. […] This combination of logic fancy was pursued in the name of modern enchantment, as players imagined themselves as heroic warriors, clever thieves, or subtle mages exploring a mysterious world teeming with adventure and danger.” [Saler, Michael. 2012. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. Oxford University Press.101]

Rules are a necessary logical component, the ‘hard’ bits of a rule system as opposed to the soft, which places RPG fantasies and thus RPG magic into an awkward place where it is required to maintain a careful balancing act between mystery and being ‘workable’ (in game terms). This of course affects play in a fundamental way as well as how the Game-Master (GM) and players may portray magic in character within the confines of the game world. When using magic that works from principles already well-known to the participants out-of-game, or at least has that feeling of mundanity to it, magical abilities and spells are less a subject of wonder and taken more for granted with certain types of players using their meta-knowledge to quantify every bit of magic they come across sometimes to the detriment of the game.

These types will attempt to pierce the veil and remove any unknowns they stumble upon especially when confronting opposing magic-users ferreting out potential weaknesses and gaps in their mystical abilities which they or their companions can take unfair advantage of. If done from within the game with characters that are supposed to be knowledgeable in such situations this is in fact a good thing though a clever GM may be able to counter such meta-gaming if they know their players well enough.

I am of the opinion that using the Magic as Technology approach is the better choice regarding TRPG magic systems. Science as magic drains magic of all of its, well, MAGIC. As science provides technological explanations built right in, it does provide a suspension of disbelief but it reduces, greatly, the air of mystery that magic should have hovering all about it. What I mean by that is when working a game from the Technology as Magic angle you start at a well-defined and completely known place with little or no pall of mystery hanging over magic lacking an element of the unknown to it.

When you start in the reverse position, Magic as Technology, you start in the void and have to work on ways to quantify it or give it shape allowing for a system designer to leave it ‘workable’ but also allowing them to leave gaps in non-game areas creating sometimes as a side effect (and with little added effort) the ‘fluffy’ bits.

When referring to ‘magic’, I am referring to the supernatural ability to make things happen whether they are seemingly scientifically impossible or not with ‘technology’ being the machinery developed from the practical application of science/knowledge; both in the context of tabletop role-playing games. Both technology and magic seem to want to arrive at the same basic end, make something that would’ve otherwise been without them impossible to happen.

However, each starts at a very different place. As I stated before technology starts within the known with results that will be repeatable with little variation and its effects with a definite cause distinguishing it from magic. Magic will have results that will be mostly repeatable (to make it usable within a gaming context) but with unpredictable variation and the cause of its effects might be no more definable than “it’s magic”. Magic as Technology and Technology as Magic are very different in concept and in execution.

Technology as Magic is the mistaking of highly advanced technology as magic basically best described by the famous quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It being the third of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws. Clarke’s Three Laws have everything to do with the ability to have vision beyond the limits of contemporaneous science and not using those current limits as the measure to gauge what is impossible. Proceeding from Clarke’s 3 laws magic, though it may be able to perform the impossible may still only be misunderstood technology.

The only thing left to distinguish it from technology, after disengaging it from sci-fi tropes, is the mystery of it, the apprehension of its dangers, and to wrap it in plenty of atmosphere. However, when dealing with technology even misidentified tech it is easy to predict that those studying it using scientific principles will eventually figure it out especially if those investigators are following the spirit of Clarke’s Three Laws, unless the investigators are prevented from probing its mysteries by certain social aspects such as superstition and religion especially when it comes to things forbidden or sacred. The discovering of the mysterious tech’s principles and mechanisms will push the boundaries of the current scientific knowledge throwing a big wrench into any ongoing campaign. Technology has predefined boundaries which must be pushed outward by investigation and experimentation.

“However, the unexpressed converse of Clarke’s “Law” has proved even more attractive: if technology looks like magic, could magic not have been misunderstood as technology?” [Clute & Nicholls. 1995. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York, St. Martin’s Press. 765]

A perfect example of Technology as Magic can be drawn from the fiction of Henry Kuttner and his 1965 novel The Dark World:

“And such minds, with their new powers, would develop tools for those powers. The wands. Though no technician, I could understand their principle. Science tends toward simpler mechanisms; the klystron and the magnetron are little more than metal bars. Yet, under the right conditions, given energy and direction, they are powerful machines. […] Well, the wands tapped the tremendous electromagnetic energy of the planet, which is, afterall, simply a gargantuan magnet. As for the directive impulse, trained minds could easily supply that.” [Kuttner, Henry. 2008 ed. The Dark World. Paizo Publishing. Bellevue, WA.  84-85]

Functionally within TRPGs this idea is very ‘easy’, the rules governing this false magic are the same as those dealing with technology only the terminology would need be altered to transform technological functions into pseudo-mystical terms which may carry some shallow sense of mystery with them. Within the game the characters may regard the tech as magic and may treat it with reverence and fear but eventually through simple in-game experience eventually they will begin to move from ignorance towards knowledge at least in the use of it and maybe even gaining basic repair skills when dealing with it.

Probably, sooner than the character the players will begin to recognize, if they hadn’t already, that the game’s ‘magic’ is just technology wrapped up in pseudo-mysticism. The game will inevitably move towards discovery as the players and thus their characters figure out what works, what doesn’t, and the how and why of it all. Technology as Magic will always move towards just technology throwing off the thin veil of fantasy revealing the game to be within the realm of sci-fi. Granted, this could come off as pretty cool the first time but inevitably players will feel the lack of mystery in that aspect of the game unless they are primarily interested in that genre.

The immediate advantages to this approach especially within the context of RPG’s are that the terms are easy to communicate, the game rules which deal with in-game tech will be doing double-duty needing only a quick reworking of terminology when dealing with tech-magic, and the idea has a potential ‘twist’ to it. As stated before this type of ‘magic’ is starting at a common and well-known place and so it follows that its terms are typically explicit right off the bat making it easy to communicate its ideas. This allows the ease of expressing descriptions and leaving a lot not said as it doesn’t need description.

This also leads to the ease of imagination; those involved can more easily picture techno-magic with less descriptive text. The game rules will be trim as there does not need to be a whole subsystem for magic only the system of rules meant for technology with some modification when it comes to the names for things and their functions translated into mystical sounding terms. It helps also to grant magic itself a little more believability up until the magic is revealed to be technology (the twist). Of course, this reveals the potential ‘twist’ of this approach to be somewhat hollow.

The ‘twist’ is a one-shot, after it’s been utilized that’s it, it’s done, the players (more likely just their characters) have discovered the mind-blowing secret to the game world and that’s it. So this strength is somewhat lacking and exists more as a bonus than a solid advantage of the tech-magic concept. Another major weakness, probably the most obvious in starting with technology and moving into mysticism is that any air of mystery is essentially shallow and the nature of any inherent dangers will already be known.

Magic as Technology is trying to treat something that cannot be decidedly defined within mundane scientific terms but can still be accessed and used with at least a fair amount of reliability to achieve desired ends. It only requires that parts of its system be known in order to be of use. This allows the impossible to be made possible and which works fairly reliably but it is not entirely clear how it works and any explanations will ultimately refer back to some ambiguous ‘source’ or power. It may provide obvious violations of scientific laws though it may also go along somewhat with them on occasion wherever it may lend credence to the magic in doing so that is.

Of course, a sharp Game-Master will know that if you introduce too many predictable scientific laws into the magic system then players will be quick to take advantage as those principles may be very familiar to them providing open and clear avenues for them to essentially ‘break’ the current incarnation of the game.

A perfect example of Magic as Technology in fiction can be drawn from The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud: “Adelbrand’s Pentacle … its extra lines and incantations double locked the door and forced you to remain for further orders. It was a complex magical formula that required adult stamina and concentration [.]” [Stroud, Jonathan. 2003. The Bartimaeus Trilogy Book One: The Amulet of Samarkand. Miramax Books, New York. Pg.80] In the Bartimaeus trilogy magic is treated as a science but there is always more to know and there is a long history and legacy of magic penetrating society.

Magic is definitely defined as supernatural (i.e. summoning demons to do your bidding much as in the Sorcerer Rpg by Ron Edwards) but magicians are specially trained through tomes and incantations to summon the demons who are the root of their power and a source of unpredictability and great danger (mostly due to their potential in being characters themselves and not just a mindless ‘source’; essentially NPC potential). The magic is given its own internal logic not logic based on science essentially being a technology of pure magic.

Functionally within TRPGs Magic as Technology is quantifying the functional parts of magic in terms that allow it to be manipulated in-game by the participants without revealing it in toto. It provides a mystery to be explored by the players’ characters in-game, it brings with it a sense of the mysterious which can be exploited by the GM, and requires only portions at any one-time to be known to be used.

This approach can have a certain risk-factor attached to its use that technology often does not have and even if it does that risk is still within known parameters whereas magic can have very random results when it gets loose. Just as well the GM can characterize the vagaries of magic as well as perhaps the universal force of magic itself sometimes almost as a character in and of itself though fairly vague on most, and hopefully the most strategic, points of its existence leading to more of a ‘sense’ and feel rather than anything that can be easily pinned down (i.e. the fluffy bits). Its boundaries unlike those of techno-magic are not well defined and most certainly lack the comfort of the familiar.

It will defeat the meta-knowledge that players can bring with them unless they’re already familiar with that specific system of magic though if it is well-designed there will still be blind-spots and risks that they may have still only a vague idea of. It not only allows but demands exploration not just in-game by the characters but also within the meta-game by the players and the GM. They will need to experiment, probe, quest, and explore discovering its advantages and sometimes suffering its strange consequences.

All of these are great advantages in the realms of game and the fun found therein. The malleability of Magic as Technology prevents those characters in command of its power of having too much power in that their knowledge can’t be all-encompassing, they simply can’t know all there is to know about magic. It allows more flexibility for the GM to work their ‘magic’ on the game. This great fluidity is also a part of this idea’s inherent weaknesses.

The weaknesses found with starting in the unknown is that one has to struggle to quantify the ‘workable’ bits without revealing/defining too much and that an entire mystical system may have to be constructed in order to lend more functionality and believability to the magic which may move towards Technology as Magic if it is over-defined. Examples of this can be found in the various strains of Vancian Magic systems with some lacking in arcane flavor others taking care to sprinkle in the proper measure of spice and mystery. Another potential weakness is the built-in mystery of this approach which is also the primary strength.

The mystery can be a disadvantage as it makes it more difficult to quantify it logically as a rule-set. In kind, in-game effects and other aspects may be hard to describe or the GM has to give more thought as to how to communicate it as there may be a lot of possible nuance putting more of a strain on the GM especially when firing off of the cuff. Also rules cannot do double-duty as magic requires its own separate rule system adding a whole other branch to the game system rule set. In fact, the magic system itself may branch out into different subsets of itself. This is also a part of its strength in that a branching magic system provides open terrain for the participants to explore possibly serving as its own adventure within an adventure in the hands of a good RPG writer and a skilled Game-Master.

Both approaches, Technology as Magic and Magic as Technology, strive to achieve desired results using means that are potentially ‘workable’ in-game. Also, both attempt to add believability to magic either grounding it in a realistic setting and/or defining it using mundane terminology (both being methods of Rationalized Fantasy). Both approaches hinge on certain questions of coherence and believability. Coherence in terms of RPG’s is definitely crucial in terms of codifying the logic into rules that can be utilized by the participants to help build their fantasy game world and being able to frame it within a certain rhetoric.

“Coherency is crucial to creating the ironic mimesis of the immersive fantasy. It is possible to create a world in which anything can and does happen. But if one does this, then it is impossible to make the characters questioning and extrapolating beings. In a fully immersive fantasy, the actors must be able to engage with their world; they must be able to scrape its surface and discover something deeper than a stage set. An ongoing example that can arise is in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Because there is no system of magic, no sense of what each kind of magic can achieve, the choice of potions versus wand spells versus magic objects is frequently arbitrary and prevents planning- Hermione’s use of a transformation potion requiring the risky business of securing genetic material is one such occasion. One cannot but wonder why there is no safer, wand-based spell. There may be a reason, but as there are no rules, Hermione cannot make choices or argue her choice.” [Mendlesohn, Farah. 2008. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT. 63-64]

Believability is required by both works of fiction and RPG’s in order to assist reader/participant immersion. If something strikes the players as completely absurd or unbelievable it can throw them straight out of the game and anyone who’s ever played a TRPG can understand how hard it may be to submerge yourself within the fantasy in the first place when you’re surrounded by interesting people. Basically, suspension of disbelief is as important to roleplaying as to fiction.

However, Technology as Magic has limited but ‘push-able’ borders, the other, Magic as Technology, seems boundless. Technology as Magic has to have the veneer of mystery applied to it, the other must be pulled out from the shadows and with some effort but which reveals only that there is more to discover. One works from well-defined and known principles and the other comes from the swirling ether of the unknown.

Magic as Technology has the advantage when referring to player exploration and mutability, and makes it easy to establish mystery even dread for the consequences (either known or completely unforeseen) which outweighs the disadvantage of the difficulty when converting it into a codified magic rules system. TRPG magic systems should have a set system which can be converted to rules and have the ‘workable’ hard-bits for the benefit of the participants but there should be enough grey areas or ‘mess’ allowing the GM some nuance and leave a sufficient level of discovery to the players. The rules themselves shouldn’t be too-complex nor be overly-defined trying to sharply define every aspect of magic though well-defined rules for magic do not necessarily stand to demystify magic either.

“It doesn’t stop being magic just because you know how it works.” [Pratchett, Terry. 2004. The Wee Free Men. Harper Trophy]

Tabletop Meditations #7: RPG Narrative

Discussions about the writing and running of tabletop games in terms of fictional narratives or as a sort of collective fiction or exercise in communal story-telling are very common as are the debates brought about by such subjects. Especially when discussing the writing of Game-Masters and the use of not only the terms but the devices of fictional narrative. According to my own personal experiences in roleplaying in both the Game-Master and Player roles as well as an avid reader of fiction, Fiction Narrative and RPG Narratives are completely different.

“RPGs cannot easily be characterised in terms of standard narrative theories, presenting a different approach to narrative. Their interactive character-based approach differs both from the classical Aristotelian theory and the analytical models proposed by the French Structuralists.” [Louchart, Sandy & Aylett, Ruth. 2003. Intelligent Virtual Agents: Solving the Narrative Paradox in VEs – Lessons from RPGs. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, Germany. 245]

Narratives in fiction and that of Tabletop Role-Playing Games (TRPGs) are fundamentally different even though they have certain similarities. From the smallest units used in their composition to visualizations of their basic overall narrative structures to how they are composed (authored) and to what audience they are meant for both forms have an array of differences though in these differences also lay similarities.

Narrative in its most basic sense is a chronology of events which build upon or relate to one another from which the basis of story and plot is built.

“Chronology is made up of identifiable events or episodes. These episodes are identified by where they occurred (the setting) and by recalling who was there (the characters). The moments in between which are often not remembered serve to merely link one with another.” [Minot, Stephen. 1993. Three Genres: The Writing of Poetry, Fiction, and Drama. Prentice-Hall Inc., New Jersey. 177-178]

As narrative is a very basic element of story, plot may be considered a separate idea artificially constructed by the author(s) where concerning fiction to give the narrative direction.

Plot, as opposed to narrative, is constructed in order to follow the narrative to an ends which can carry personal meanings or messages and is meant to immerse and propel the reader along the course plotted out beforehand by the author(s). Narrative is not constructed of plot but plot does steer narrative in a certain direction that is determined by the author(s). In Fiction Narrative plot is directed by the author(s) and similarly in TRPGs plot can be said to be the same as all the participants (GM and Players) are in place of the author(s). However, in RPG’s plots are less ‘plotted’ rather than constructed by the interaction of the participants against some sort of framework previously setup by the Game-Master which can be termed ‘Adventure’ as the equivalent of ‘Plot’ where concerning TRPG narrative.

“The Game-Master exercises control at a high level over narrative unfolding, plot, pace and the structure of the story. Since the a priori plot line for a campaign is only hypothetical, the Game-Master needs specific tools – in the form of […] encounters […] – to gain some control over the overall campaign.” [Louchart & Aylett. 246]

The TRPG narrative is collectively gathered from the participation of the GM and players including the accumulation of details authored by each whereas the plot of standard fiction is determined by the author(s) and is often carefully constructed to follow the intended narrative.

“A fictional plot is a weaving together of events that are interrelated and which work toward a conclusion.” [Minot.183]

The plot of fiction and TRPGs are similar on a very basic level and this is where the confusion between Fiction Narrative and that of TRPGs can produce unfavorable results which should be familiar to most TRPG gamers.

The desire to change the shape of the adventure and/or campaign into that of a traditional fiction narrative on the part of the GM is the prime example of the confusion between TRPG narrative and Fiction Narrative. When the GM behaves in this manner they essentially hijack the agency of the players taking away their power to affect the game world and alter the shape of the story. This is called ‘railroading’ and is often to the detriment of the game (however, I have met and played with those that prefer the rails and often spend time in-game seeking them out).

“While the DM [Dungeon-Master] can limit players’ actions, in reality, the players have a great deal of agency in creating the story of the TRPG.” [Grouling-Cover, Jennifer. 2010. The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. 49]

Essentially when trying to steer the roleplaying game into the territory of narrative fiction the railroad-GM begins to exclude a major part of the gaming experience and excising an essential part of the TRPG that makes it unique and apart from standard fiction. Railroading is the practice of forcing the players to stay within the confines of a plotline written or in the mind of the Game-Master thereby changing the very nature of the game. Where the GM has acted more as an author of a choose-your-own-adventure book rather than acting in the more appropriate referee mode though commonly in tabletop RPG’s (TRPG’s) the GM may author elements of the adventure particularly the background elements of the campaign world perhaps even the campaign world itself. “The player in a TRPG [Tabletop Role-Playing Game] is not out to discover the secret to the DM’s story but to help create that story through active participation [.]” [Grouling-Cover. 37] There is no sole author when it comes to roleplaying.

The GM acts less as an author of fiction or the care-taker of an all-important storyline but should behave more as an arbiter of the rules, a referee when it comes to negotiating in-game conundrums, and maintain control of the game using the tools available to them such as encounters, playing on meta-knowledge of the players, and the capability of the characters among a few others.

“The Game-Master expects that the encounters specifically created for a session, will trigger actions, reactions, discussions or decisions from the party in such a way that an anticipated plot will unfold. This plot however has a hypothetical aspect since what actually happens is the direct result of the party’s generated reactions to the different encounters. They can be used by the Games Master to shape and pace the dramatic unfolding of the narrative as well as presenting the main source of entertainment to the players, and embodying key events in the construction of the plot. Their smooth orchestration by the Game-Master is critical to the creation, development and unfolding of an RPG campaign.” [Louchart & Aylett. 246]

The GM makes use of in-game devices such as encounters, expressing scenarios that the players may happen upon or induce through their behavior, and determining when the element of chance is required to be relied upon which typically takes the shape of a dice roll of some type. If the party gets too far off the path of the adventure at hand threatening take the campaign into territory which would diminish the overall fun for the group then it is the GM’s responsibility to get them back onto the trail as it were by intervening in certain ways.

“Interventions are generally caused either by players taking longer than expected in dealing with encounters or by the story branching in an unexpected manner. Branching may occur when the party incorrectly determines their role and what is expected from them, pursues future plot events omitting essential encounters or attempts to reinvent themselves. The need for interventions illustrates the plot’s provisional nature and stresses on the Game-Master’s preparation and flexibility.” [Louchart & Aylett. 246-247]

This can be avoided with certain other GM techniques such as “sandboxing” or keeping the details of the adventure as fluid as possible allowing the actions of the player to codify them and the Game-Master should allow themselves the flexibility to work those elements into the adventure allowing them to keep a firm hold on the direction of the campaign.

“Because the DM [Dungeon-Master] cannot predict players’ actions, he or she can not [sic] know what direction the story might take or what parts of the world might be explored. While the DM may control the world to an extent, this control is far more ephemeral than that of an author.” [Grouling-Cover. 92]

In the classical understanding of narrative the author constructs the fictional world, the characters, directs their actions within it, and develops the plot-line via the chronology of events within the story. “[…] RPGs work with a hypothetical plot which is dynamically modified, the mechanisms supporting this dynamic modification seem to rely … on out-of-character and out-of-play direct interactions.” [Louchart & Aylett. 248] Right off the bat it is evident that the narrative of TRPGs is very fluid and mimetic as compared to that of fiction which is much more monolithic. Of course, plot and narrative in both veins are composed of smaller more basic bits. These smaller parts of Fiction Narrative and TRPGs respectively are Scenes, Story-Beats, Episodes, and Play-Units.

Fiction narrative is written by a single author or group of authors who for the most part are all considered primary authors with each more or less contributing an equal amount of material to the story. Authors write for a captive audience whom as they read have no choice but to follow the narrative set down by the author upon whose shoulders and skill rests the ability to keep the readers immersed and in a state of suspense. This allows for a structured plotline running through the events contained in the narrative to make sense of them to the authors’ ends.

The underlying structure for fiction narrative known as Dramatic Structure when visualized appears very similar if not identical to a Bell-Curve (a more strict analysis could yield something more akin to Freytag’s Pyramid but this is a more general discussion) with the climax of the story, the height of the action, occurring at a single point. Of course, the events following the plot often will increase in intensity building up to the climax afterwards the main plotline if not all plot-lines including those attached to participant characters are tied up ending the story. High points on the curve would be points of high-energy and/or action and the low points would of course be lulls in the action. Each of these points represents a single scene or event, the building blocks of the story.

Fiction “is made up of a sequence of related scenes [and] is a construction of units in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” [Minot.184] A scene is the smallest unit of story and each scene is built of beats which are marked changes in the fuzzy or emotional bits or ‘feel’ (not to be confused with mood) in a scene. Story-Beats are the smallest unit that makes up fiction most often applied to screenwriting, or as defined by Robert Mckee in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997) as an exchange of behavior in action/reaction.

In fact, by this definition the GM and the players are included in the story which is not far from the truth of the matter but it is a little lacking when it comes to TRPG’s due to the breaking out of bounds of the ‘story’. Instead of Story-Beats that make up fiction’s narrative, in roleplaying the smallest unit of narrative is a Play-Unit which consists of a scenario (presented by the Game Master) + decision (made by the players) which then may lead to action (a high point) or inaction (a low point). [Edwards, Ron. 2001. Sorcerer & Sword. Adept Press, Chicago. Pg.80] Basically the Story-Beat of fiction narrative can translate with some work to the Play Unit of TRPG’s. Similarly, scenes can absolutely be drawn from the narrative that forms during play thus relating RPG Narratives to that of fiction and as fiction has its smallest units (technically the scene and emotively the action beat) so does the narrative that evolves from a roleplaying game session.

However, the narrative flow of TRPG’s as opposed to the narrative flow in fiction is very different.

“A narrative in a RPG is here defined as a description through game play of a series of events created by the interaction of two or more participants.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 55]

The narrative flow of an RPG campaign is essentially a sine-wave with the high points being moments of action and the low points being those of calm or inaction, the definitions of the highs and lows being identical to those of fiction narrative.

The narrative flow of fiction usually moves upwards climbing towards a climax (or anti-climax) with the high and low points on the visualized graph being much the same as that of those on the Sine-Wave of TRPG’s but may be increasing in intensity as the author can reliably craft or manipulate these events in order to do so, in RPG’s the events as they also depend on the unpredictable actions of the players and many times on an element of chance (the dice) will have varying and sometimes seemingly random variances in intensity/thrill-level.

In the same vein, the thrill-level may be at variance for each of the players as well. This is because the narrative of a TRPG is authored by not just a specific individual or group but a whole gamut of folks from the Game-Master, each individual Player, to the deeper levels of authorship which may not be personally present during the game such as the authors of additional supplemental game material.

Basically, it’s the participants who share the authoring of the TRPG Narrative not to diminish the work of the GM whose responsibility it is to both referee games and often provide background material and characters as well as incorporating any supplemental material into the campaign. This also includes authors that are not direct participants in the campaign those authors that have written material used to supplement the game by the participants thereby creating several levels of authorship with the players at the shallower end.

“Although RPG players have a good idea of the overall story in which they are involved, they are more concerned by the development of their characters and their focus is situated at a fairly low level within the overall story, the individual level.” [Louchart & Aylett. 247]

Essentially, it is more helpful to refer to what is called Story in Fiction Narrative as a Campaign in the context of TRPGs as the authorship of narrative between TRPGs and fiction is so very different.

“The creation of a campaign is a collaborative process where the characters, as well as the worlds and environments in which the campaign is set, are developed in common accord between the Game-Master and the players. […] This laborious but highly participative creation process allows the Games Master to prepare the campaign episodes with a good understanding and knowledge of the different characters and world involved. This favours the delivery of a highly flexible narrative structure[.]” [Louchart & Aylett. 245]

The narrative of a TRPG is dynamic, it is a contributive exercise involving the players and the GM and commonly other remote authors where the narrative is simply not consistent across its audience.

“Game play is dynamic and, as it relies upon input from the player, can at least possibly differ for each player. Any narrative will be experienced by a player as a result of their game play. As the game play of each player differs, so their narratives may differ.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 54]

This can dramatically alter the narratives not only retold by each participant when recounting their experiences but their view of the campaign through the experiences of their character and their own meta-game experiences actually playing the game around the table.

“The narrative experienced by a player will be informed by the total sum of their game play experience.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 55]

This very fluid structure and continual nature of the narrative structure of TRPG campaigns seems that it would be at a sublime disadvantage when it comes to the attentions of a passive audience.

A Campaign World is the collection of information that forms the background essentially the stage on which the game occurs and where the characters act. This is aside from the TRPG narrative component equivalent to story in fiction narrative. A campaign world is often referred to as the setting, the place where the adventures happen.

“Campaign settings are designed not to tell stories, but to create spaces for stories.” [Grouling-Cover. 79]

What differentiates these game settings from the worlds of traditional fiction narratives is that the players have agency within the world having the power to leave their marks on it.

“[W]hile the world exists independently from the way the characters and players progress through it, the participants of TRPGs do influence the development of the world.” [Grouling-Cover. 77]

The players and even the GM change and build the setting as they progress through their adventures and thus the fantasy world. In many cases it’s the players’ interest in the world that surrounds their characters (the PC’s) that fills in the minute details and sometimes even creates whole new aspects and features within the setting.

“The interests of the players and the questions they ask also affect the world in more detailed ways that more directly influence the narrative.” [Grouling-Cover. 78]

This is not to say the players and their characters have ultimate say in the course of events unintentional or otherwise, the GM still has certain planned events which can alter the player characters’ paths.

“Many details of the world get fleshed out only as the players (characters) progress through them; however, certain events in the world progress regardless of the characters’ involvement with them.” [Grouling-Cover. 79]

In TRPGs it’s the audience that has agency over the narrative.

The audience that TRPGs are written for or rather meant to entertain is the participants around the table playing the game. “A RPG narrative is not made for an audience, but for the people participating.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 55] The audience of an RPG Campaign is also its authors. When it comes to relating their adventures the players and Game-Masters will form their tales into narratives from their point of view which may be from outside of the game or from within coming from a specific character. These ‘tales from the table’ often divide the narrative into scenes which are extracted from the over-arching campaign. These scenes as they are called in fiction narrative are better referred to as Episodes in TRPGs.

In TRPGs episodes can be a smaller part of an overall campaign or be limited to a single gaming session especially where the group is playing out a specific scenario in the game. It is also especially useful when referring to Episodic Play where the participants in a gaming group may shift, meaning the group is not composed of a fixed membership of individuals or even set number of participants at any one time where using one-shot type scenarios is a particularly useful tactic on the GM’s part to be able to get a game together and keep it together perhaps only later trying to tie them together into a greater campaign. The TRPG campaign like the Story of fiction is composed of Episodes as a story is drawn from a series of scenes. These scenes are composed of smaller pieces, story-beats, and thus an episode is also composed of what are also essentially story-beats better referred to as Play-Units in the context of TRPGs.

As defined before a Play-Unit consists of a situation presented by the GM and a decision made on this scenario by the player(s). The most fundamental bit of TRPGs is a back-and-forth between the participants.

“[An] RPG narrative is constructed by a continual process of communication and feedback between the participants.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 58]

This interaction is communicated through the context of the rule system they are using.

“Rule books… provide rules that assist participants in creating and controlling their storyworld. These books create the system that is used to structure the game.” [Grouling-Cover. 11]

It is through this filtering medium that the participants are able to negotiate and come to agreement as to what will become a part of the campaign and a reality in their collective fiction.

Negotiation describes the way the group uses social interaction to decide how the events will progress in the narrative… negotiation is a process of reaching a point that successfully lets the story progress.” [Grouling-Cover. 33]

It is from this seemingly basic unit of interaction that the TRPG story, a campaign, evolves from the collective imaginations of the participants, the RPG Group, most likely using material drawn from multiple sources and authors.

The basic smallest building blocks of both types of narratives are similar but still different as they serve different purposes. As discussed previously authors place story-beats of their fiction narrative in order to move the plot along using events which ultimately will lead to the climax of the story. The narrative and indeed the plot that can be extracted from a TRPG session seems to be an emergent narrative, that is it evolves and grows though the GM may set the player group on the path to a certain event and/or climax (which in RPG’s is more of a chapter-mark or framing device) and may completely diverge into completely unforeseen territory. The philosophy of the TRPG is essentially “story now”, the players and indeed the GM will want to enjoy their game NOW, and if any of them find it boring they do have the freedom to try to find the fun in any way that they can.

“The key concept is simple: Story Now. Not “It’ll add up to a story someday,” or “Your character will be tough enough to start a story some day [sic],” or even, “You don’t know this, but a really cool story is underlying these adventures.” No. Story now means that the conflicts and resolutions played out openly on the table are engaging and coherent, at that moment.  […] It means the proposition of conflict, the pivotal role of the heroes’ decisions, and a resolution of the conflict.” [Edwards.80]

When it comes to levels of authorship, traditional fiction is a little more streamlined than the multiple levels found in even a cursory glance at TRPGs. Often there is only a single level with the author(s) being the primary having full control over the narrative and its components. This of course is not taking into account certain series of books or fictional universes where multiple authors contribute to multiple works all set in the same world or universe such as in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

In TRPGs authorship is a multi-level dynamic and liquid thing where not only the participants create fictive elements amongst themselves when interacting through the medium of the game but when adding in elements from materials written by other authors. In roleplaying games the authorship also overlaps with the audience as the participants produce their campaign narrative for their own entertainment whereas when it comes to fiction the author(s) produce their stories for an audience that has no agency within the author’s fictive world. The final demonstration of the absolute difference between the narrative structure of TRPGs and that of Fiction is the visualizations of their general underlying structure, the difference between the potentially perpetual Sine-Wave structure of RPGs and the finite Bell-Curve structure of classical fiction narrative.

In conclusion, RPG Narrative Flow is very different from that of Fiction Narrative Flow which can be demonstrated by comparing any of the most basic components of either not to mention the dramatic difference illustrated by way of their line-graph visualizations. RPG narratives are unlike that of the Narratives of Fiction alternating in action or high points with low points at pretty regular intervals as a sine-wave whereas Fiction Narrative has a definitive structure that escalates in action & drama moving towards a climax. In RPG Narratives a set piece may mark a climax and (hopefully) coincide with a high-point providing some closure to most of the prescient story-lines that were prominent in the campaign.

The various components of either type of narrative can be said to be related and can be translated in limited terms back and forth. Fiction is often plundered for ideas for use in the game world and the basic elements of fiction can be extracted from a campaign narrative with the most bottom level translation between fiction’s Story-Beat and Play-Unit being approximate at best. There are relations between the two different narrative styles and structures but a TRPG is not a novel though a novel can be extracted from the conglomeration of story and detail created through the play of an RPG campaign if the Riftwar Saga by Raymond Feist and the Dragonlance books can stand as examples.

However, the most important difference, at least in my opinion, between the narrative flow of classical fiction and that of TRPGs is player agency and the shared authorship of all involved regardless of their level of participation.

“This [the TRPG Narrative form] is fundamentally different to many other narrative forms, in that the participants have an active role in shaping the future form of the narrative.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 59]