Saturday, September 24, 2011

Making It Up As You Go: Improvisational Ability

Most of us have all had the experience of running an improvised adventure. Back in the day we called them "random". Although personally I never liked that term. Even though there were hordes of random generation charts for adventure creation that could be used for just such a game. In fact the game was really designed for creative spontaneity of several sorts, in spite of where we might have taken it. That was evidently the way it was done in the original playtests. At any rate we probably have all come to a gaming session unprepared to DM beyond the merest hint of an idea, and maybe not even that.

The game may have flopped, and it may have been a smash hit. One of the remarkable things about this game is that it continues to surprise us at every turn. We are constantly being challenged on an intellectual and creative level by the things that come up within the game. At times it is a player doing something original or at least unexpected. At times it is the story flowing out of us like it was meant to be. Events align just right and we find ourselves coming up with things we never would have imagined on our own. It's one of the reasons I love this game.

So in a way the game is designed for improvisation. Embrace it fully. It is the nature of vehicle in which we play. Don't feel bad if your thoughts or the direction of the game goes differently than what you may or may not have had planned. If players wander off the edge of the map then make it up as you go. Embrace the possibilities this presents. And don't be afraid to come up with new mechanics or new rules, new monsters, new and unexpected twists and events. Things that color outside the lines so to speak. The thing about roleplaying in the games we play is that they were not designed to be driven by a pregenerated story. The game doesn't work that way. Embrace this fact and let the story unfold itself.

This sort of opportunism is essential to allowing the game to reach it's full potential. In the storytelling medium storytellers had stories that they told again and again. They were largely memorized. But the thing we often don't realize it that they were never memorized verbatim. They weren't scripted and they weren't like a Greek play or a Shakespearean drama. Storytellers memorized elements. Outlines. The basic facts of a story. And when they stood in front of the fire, or took the stage, they had to read their audience. They had to adapt the story to the time and the people they told it to.

Homer's Illiad worked exactly this way. The outline of the story we have finally written down had been preserved for ages in the minds of storytellers. It only became concretized when Homer wrote in down. Now when we think of Illiad we often think of Homer's telling. But the outline of the Illiad had been used by writers throughout time. The elements of the outline are preserved in telling a new rewritten tale, that though it contains the same elements is essentially a new story. Shakespeare's works have been rich fields for exactly such creations throughout time.

So are our truly great modules and adventures published by the genuinely creative designers, also templates which we use to write our own stories upon. The story you tell when you use an adventure or make your own or go completely random. Is not generated by the elements themselves. The true story the real interaction is between the PCs and the GM controlled and generated environment. Relying on preprinted materials is fine, I'm not saying you shouldn't do it that way. But don't set yourself up for some sort of scripted story. The PCs are walking into a preexisting situation. How they react and what they do may be very different from what you expect. Embrace this and be prepared to run with it.

This sort of opportunistic GMing must be cultivated as a quick thinking approach to player action. The players present you with something unexpected, or are the direction of the game is not going in the way you had anticipated. Fine. Don't think about what you had anticipated or planned or expected. Think instead about what the players are doing. You know the world around you. You have read the module or prepared the city, kingdom, dungeon or wilderness ahead of time. Or maybe you don't and your making it up as you go--even better! Consider the players' actions as fuel for what happens next. Think about the natural and at times unnatural consequences of their actions. And make it happen.

Say for example you had planned for the PCs to rescue a Princess kidnapped by an Ogre Mage. You hadn't really planned much beyond making a quick map of the Ogre Mage's caves. The adventure starts with the PCs being summoned by the King. The PCs arrive and you give in your best imitation of kingly speech an impassioned plea for their aide and offer a royal reward to boot. But the players aren't impressed. And though they reluctantly agree to the quest they quickly get sidetracked in the town visiting the local tavern. As a GM you have no idea why they are visiting the tavern, or avoiding the quest, despite several reminders that they king expects them to get underway immediately. To no avail however as they begin to seek out a local apothecary to see if they can purchase some poison--goodness isn't one of their alignment foci. So, what do you do?

Now right off the top of my head I see several possibilities. First poison is a controlled substance in this town. And when they get to the apothecary, a tall thin man with weasely features named Arndt, and ask for the black stuff, Arndt gives them the local thieves sign to see if they can identify themselves as such. Of course they can't, as the sign is known only to local thieves and assassins. This makes him suspicious and he says he doesn't carry the stuff. But if they come back at sundown he can have some brewed. Unknowingly to them Arndt is playing both sides of the street. As soon as the PCs leave he notifies the authorities to be ready at his place to arrest the ne'erdo wells. Of course Arndt extracts a fee from the constable for the information. And then Arndt promptly notifies the thieves and assassins guild--Thee Humble Cutters they call themselves, as the front for their business is a rather unprosperous harvesters union. And Arndt makes it clear to his under the counter regulars that there are unauthorized assassins operating in the region.

Three days later as the party is trying to break two of their number out of the dungeon while dodging assassination attempts by the Cutters, they catch a conversation by some guards that the Princess Marroway has evidently been sold to some adventurers from the south where slavery is common. (Actually this was my second choice. I wanted to have the Ogre Mage sacrifice her as a material component in an evil spell, but this way there is now a whole other adventure hook to the south.) And if the party doesn't realize that they are going to get framed for the slave trafficking, I simply let them hear the guards add that the King is sure the dastards who he hired to save thee princess were evidently slavers.

Mean? Cruel? Evil? Maybe, but that is the world the PCs live in. I'm certainly not railroading them. They chose to enter a rather seedy and dangerous underbelly of the kingdom and are now caught up in it. Evidently that was what they wanted. So instead of the Ogre Mage's hobgoblin minions, they are now facing the Cutters and Kingly Justice. Ouch. Ah well. Such is the nature of improvisational play. The story happens because you are willing to take advantage of opportunities. Fortunately you have longer than the 5 minutes it took me to write this in actual game play. Your mind is churning and working the whole time. Take the opportunities the players give you and weave the story as you go.

This is Improvisational Ability. Opportunism in game related storytelling. Don't be afraid of it. Cultivate it and use it to it's full potential.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Serial Killer on the Loose: A Study in Storytelling

By way of introduction to the four topics on storytelling, I will use as an example a recent story I told to some of my students.

I am known as a weird and geeky sort of teacher. But it goes beyond the glasses and pocket protector and the fact that I teach math. I am also a recognized local expert in mythology, witchcraft and magic. I always introduce myself at the beginning of the year as having studied these subjects at University. And so I did in the Cultural Anthropology department--that was my specialty. But I back that up with offering several mini courses throughout the year in paranormal investigation, where I explain to students that I am an amateur paranormal investigator as well. I do another mini-course in monsters and mythical beings. And of course I ran the gaming club for the past 6 years. So I possess a certain cultural cache as being more than passing weird.

The reason I mention this is that it often helps in storytelling to possess that cache. In primitive cultures storytellers were often also shamans, priests, wisemen, elders or individuals set apart for that purpose. Fortunately in gaming we already possess a certain cultural cache in the title of GM. What we often don't do is build up the mystique around such a title. GMs are expected to have secret and special knowledge of the game if not the specific world or adventure we're about to assume control of. Play that up. Know your back story, or at least pretend that you know everything about it. Start to build some suspense by hinting that certain things might or might not happen. Especially in terms of player danger and excitement. But generally players will defer by social contract to the GM as storyteller--but anything you can do to elevate your status in that regard helps as a storyteller. This gives you authority when you speak--your players will want to listen from the start. But more on this some other time.

So I had their attention from the start. They expect a certain degree of weirdness from me, and I'm familiar with weirdness, especially a certain type of scary bizarreness. I'm also a teacher, so I command some authority. Well, it was 6th hour and the students had finished their work early. I let them talk for a bit, but they were getting a little too loud. So I got their attention again and no one questioned me as I rose walked over to the lights and turned both of them off. This is Opportunism. Realizing the opportunity for a story I was ready to begin one. This requires an ability to improvisationally take advantage of whatever situation arises and weave an appropriate tale. I know my students love ghost stories. They love to be scared, and they know I'm full of "inside knowledge" about such things.

As I walked to the light switch I began my tale, "I wanted to tell you this, but some of the teachers will a little doubtful about sharing the information with students so soon after the incident." I paused here for effect. "Personally, I think you need to know. As it has to do with your personal safety. It was actually on the news last night. You may have heard? About the body they found here at school." Several gasps and murmurs spread throughout the room. Of course no such body had been found. I was making it all up. But I had their attention. Everybody loves a good murder tale, and I had also achieved Immediacy. This had just happened. And Personal Relevance. I was giving them inside knowledge--other teachers didn't want to tell them. But I was. I was "letting them in". This also happened at the school. A body found here, where they spend 6 to 8 hours a day. I had their complete attention.

"The body was that of a Jr. High School age child, but evidently the student wasn't enrolled at the school. The body was found by the janitors as they were on the roof yesterday, mostly by the smell. The kid had been shoved into the bottom of a swamp cooler, but he was already evidently dead when he was put there." A young girl in the back covered her mouth with her hand in shock. Many eyes were wide in disbelief. Several kids were raising hands wanting to ask questions. But I wanted no interruptions yet.

"They think the body had been dead several days when it was put there. The decomposition was hastened by the water in the bottom of the cooler. The cause of death, they think, is strangulation. The neck had imprints, bruises, of finger marks. But the marks were really long. As is the fingers were very long. For this reason they are assuming the killer is an adult." Shock, disbelief and waving hands are erupting into rising voices of questions and comments.

"Who was the kid?!"
"Do they have a killer?"
"It was probably a teacher!!"
"How did they get up on the roof anyway?"
"There are stairs stupid."

And I take a few of these as my cue, "Actually they don't know who the child is at this time. They know he was 14 or 15, and that all children in the building are accounted for. So he evidently wasn't enrolled here. He may be a high schooler." Here I'm falling into my old rhythms so I amp up the weirdness a bit.

"The body was fairly badly mutilated however, so it may take some time to actually find out who it was. The Bite marks don;t seem to be human in nature. So the killer may have left the body hidden for some times in the woods."

"Bite Marks?!"

"Yeah, they appear slightly wolf like in nature. Whatever was chewing on him had large canine teeth and serrated incisors."

Amidst gasps and more strident muttering I hear the whispered oath "Skinwalkers ... "

Skinwalkers are a powerful local legend here associated with the local Ute Indian culture. The Native Peoples here don't talk about them much, because they believe it will summon them. I however harbor no compunctions. "There were hairs at the site that they've been unable to identify as well. They certainly aren't human. Strangely they can;t figure out how whoever the killer was got the body up on the roof. They would have had to carry it while climbing the side of the building. There was no evidence that anyone had been in the building in the last few nights. They checked the digital security logs."

"Mr. Jones, there's a place right over in the breezeway, where you can climb up the fence around the electrical power boxes. Form the fence you can get up there easily."

This is amusing that he would admit he knew this, but I take the suggestion and run with. "I didn't know that. Maybe we should notify the police about it. And anyway if that's what the killer did, he did so carrying a 120 pound body. Pretty strong."

The class is now terrified. You can see the fear in their eyes and hear their speculations about where and who it might be. We are a relatively small community so when names start coming up I take up the tale again.

"Piecing together what happened the cops think that the victim probably knew or trusted the killer. Or at least let him get close." Here I'm lowering my voice and stooping slightly, as if sneaking up to someone. "They think," I whisper "that the victim let the killer get close. That maybe the monster called him over to him. Maybe in some dark shadow under a tree or in the park. Probably at night ..." I'm leaning over now, my hands reaching out in the forms of bent claws. I continue the story almost finished now. The kids are also leaning forward, straining to hear my raspy whispering voice. "Oh, and one more thing I should say ..." And I pause longer than ever. "I'm lying my butt off right now."

They are frozen for a minute until the reality of my last sentence hits them. They push back in the chairs, some stand up. One little girl slams her hand down on the desk and shouts "I knew it! I just knew it!!"

There is laughter and groans and hugely audible sighs of relief. I laugh too, unable to control my mirth that they once again took the bait so willingly. The satisfaction in having pulled the story off so well is gratifying. My story vocabulary wasn't the best, but it served it's purpose. Pulling in local legends and commonalities in serial killing vocabulary. Along with the body language, also a part of vocabulary, adding to a realistic and believable effect I never could have achieved otherwise.

Such effects and tools are common to storytellers everywhere. And native ability as well as long practice make their application much easier. Over the course of the next few days I will examine each of these elements in detail and how they are best employed in gaming environments.




Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Lying For a Living: The GM as Storyteller

It's not really lying ... It's not. We are hard wired to tell stories. Think about the last time you tried to relate some funny anecdote to a group of friends. Or to relate some personal tragedy or triumph. Got it in your mind? Good, now think about not just the telling of the event, but how you told it. How honest were you really? How many superlatives did you employ? How much slang? How much overemphasis? How much metaphor? How much did you lie?

Yeah, lie. We rarely convey the truth when we communicate. Especially when we relate stories. Humans aren't hardwired to relate truth. At least not literally. We are hardwired to tell stories. And that's because we are geared towards creating meaning. Of drawing meaning out of our environment and our experiences. Each of us lives a tale, breathes a legend with us as the central character. This is why we engage in storytelling so avidly. Just look at our entertainment. We are built around storytelling--video games, movies, television, comedy, jokes in general, pictures, sports teams. Stories weave in the air all about us. Some might argue that they are devoid of meaning until observed, others that there is inherent truth in everything and humans tease out those threads. Either way it doesn't matter stories are still the medium of communication. And the important part isn't that we told the exact literal truth, but that we conveyed the meaning behind the event.

Errol Morris recently wrote a book about truth in photography in which he makes the point that every photograph is posed. No matter how spontaneous, every photo is taken with the idea of communicating some meaning or emotion by the photographer. Sometimes more overtly than others. Even something considered as nonfictional as an unedited, unaltered, spontaneous photo communicates meaning of some sort. And that meaning is interpreted, read if you will, by the taker of the picture. And often directed by those setting up the camera or the scene. There is no such thing as objective truth, all truth is subjective. Science itself is built on storytelling even when we tell ourselves we are being "objective describers" of the truth. The search for meaning is the search for story.

So, thank you for sticking with me this long. Because now we turn to the GameMasters role as storyteller. If meaning is so universal to us and the communication of meaning is the act of storytelling then of course GMs are storytellers. The question then becomes a matter of extent. When you communicate information to players you are communiacting meaning. Think about that. 10 foot wide corridor extends to the edge of your torchlight ahead. Think about the meaning and potential behind that statement. Noone would think much of the nature of that small description beyond a simple conveyance of the immediate surroundings. There seems to be little choice in the matter. Now add a small detail "there lingers the faint hint of methane in the air." And a whole new dimension is opened. Is the methane due to a natural gas leak that could spell their doom? Perhaps they won't know until they dare to venture forth and discover the methane smell emanates from the troll cave up ahead where he craps and urinates in a corner.

Such small details lead to the development of story. Where a ten foot corridor is quickly forgotten a stinky troll cave rarely is. But weaving such details together into a cohesive whole without sacrificing player agency is an art indeed. Just what qualities of a storyteller should a GM develop in order to increase this quality in their game? I would put forth several here today:
  • Improvisational ability--Opportunism
  • Immediacy--Immanence
  • Personal Relevance--Importance
  • Story Vocabulary--Descriptive Ability
Each of these factors will be an entry unto themselves over the next few days.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Castles & Crusades: What Makes It So Good?

There are a couple of things that make an RPG a success in my opinion. There are tons of RPGs on the market, but few of them rise to the status of greatness. Greatness required innovation. The recreation of previous greatness is simply forgery. Sometimes a game can get it right the first time.Which is especially true for groundbreaking games. Call of Cthulhu is an example of a game that got it right the first time. Sandy Petersen is a great designer for one. And previously no game had really truly addressed the Lovecraft theme previously. Dungeons & Dragons is great up to 2e. And Advanced Dungeons & Dragons / Basic / Expert are really an era more than a single game following after Original D&D where things were still largely great because the ethos of the game hadn't changed much. GURPS was great up to about 3rd edition. RuneQuest was great due to Glorantha. But this post isn't a roll call of greatness. This is instead about why C&C is great. I would submit three reasons in this regard.

Reason Number 1 Why Castles & Crusades is Great: It's simple. The Seige Mechanic is straighforward, intuitive, flexible and easy to pick up. You can roll up and play C&C in about 15 minutes. No muss no fuss. It allows CKs to run a game largely without books too. Don't get me wrong the Troll Lords put out some awesome books and supplemental material. But you don't need them! If you can recall what hit die each class gets, roll up six stats, and understand the basics of the Seige mechanic then *poof* play! Sure there are racial bonuses and the like and you may want a pre priced equipment list, but really you don;t need any of that. Just a strong desire to have some fun and have some adventurous times.

Reason Number 2 Why Castles & Crusades is Great: Good storytelling. The C&C guys are great at telling engaging fantasy stories. I like to create my own worlds by and large. The only real world I ever used stock as it were was Greyhawk. But after reading the depth of story associated with Erde I have seriously considered using it as my new campaign world for the next several years if not more. I was especially moved by the story of Luther and the Sea of Dreams, but that is just one tale amidst a tapestry of writing that spans all of their handiwork. C&C isn't about just spitting out a torrent of new worlds for you to buy. They have invested over 15 years to this campaign world and it is rich and deep. It is a world that literally begs to be played.

Reason Number 3 why Castles & Crusades is Great: The people. Stephen and Davis Chenault are simply the most genuine and real people I have yet met in the professional RPG world. I'm not downing anybody else here, just praising these two guys and those who work with them as darn good people. Stephen answers his own phone, emails his customers and he and Davis are guys anybody would want at their table. I know people have said their staff is too small, their production dates are screwed up, their editing could be better. But do we really want an overstaffed impersonal crew working at the front office? Absolutely not. Stephen and Davis are first and foremost Gamers. They think like gamers and act like gamers, nice ones anyway. I've been hanging out at a lot of gaming communities lately. Game specific ones and more generic gamer havens. And none--and I mean NONE--are as friendly as the Troll Lords site, fora and the people who play C&C. Some others are downright mean and exclusive. I always feel like I'm on trial when I'm at those places. But the Troll Lords and the C&C community is a place any gamer can feel at home. And they don;t push their views on you. C&C is a very open and flexible game. Alot of it is up to personal interpretation, which is another reason it is so great. But noone has an agenda to push, other than they really like C&C.

For all these reasons C&C is also the perfect game for beginners. Easy to learn, easy to play, very flexible and forgiving. Great product support if you are looking for that, and a warm and fun loving community. What more could a new gamer ask for? Heck what more could any gamer ask for?