Friday, August 26, 2005

Legend of the Five Rings

I play Legend of the Five Rings with my regular group. We started this game with our group in Colorado about seven years ago. After Krista and I moved to New Jersey, we started up with a new group, with Krista keeping her character from the old game. This has been a long, dramatic, and fun game, with the characters reaching a level of power now that they are going to shake the foundations of the Empire.

This experience leads to the point of this post. I have read a number of critiques of L5R, including this rather disastrous account of a GenCon game. The main thing I keep asking myself is why are we having such a good experience with this game, when others are obviously not? I don't think the game is particularly poorly written, it is a good example of a large RPG publisher's design-by-committee method. It does get a bit muddled when it comes to source material, and the high-ranking NPCs really seem to fall easily into "GM PC" disfunction.

I really have two points here. The first is that the game has a very coherent point to play, which is to accumulate Honor and Glory and increase your character's station in society. There are a number of discrete mechanics which directly support this, and they work pretty well. They could certainly use better guidelines, beyond pure GM fiat, but if implemented as it seems they were intended, they do this. This has been some of the most satisfying advancement in my own game, and now that the characters are all fourth and fifth rank samurai, they are well-established, famous, and esteemed members of their respective clans.

Second, L5R works best if you don't hew too closely to the metaplot. My game works well because I use all of those rich NPCs as accessories to my player characters, not the other way 'round. Why have seven NPC Thunders when the PCs could perform that function just as well? I have found in setting-rich games that it is best if the setting revolves around the characters and their actions. That's where the fun is.

In conclusion, I have a somewhat ambiguous review of the game. If protagonizing GM techniques are used, you can get some rewarding play out of this game. The text does support a very spectator-based game as well, and may in fact slip that direction most of the time. I don't have enough direct evidence to say one way or another.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

GM Techniques - an Epiphany

Krista started an online Harry Potter game for some offline gaming friends. Three of us made up characters, and then made initial posts, about a month ago. That is where things pretty much stalled out. I have been talking with her, and she was sort of at a loss about how to get things going. I recommended kickers, a concept from Sorcerer. A kicker is an event designed to start play with an exciting and unavoidable scene. The basic idea is you describe an event central to your character's concept that your character cannot ignore. I wrote a new post for my character that incorporated a pretty big one.

My character’s parents were accused of being Death Eaters and were killed by Aurors. The kicker is that he receives an anonymous note telling him that the truth about his parents will be revealed, he just has to meet with the note-writer at a particular time and place.

After this, the game still didn’t go anywhere. While Krista and I were packing last Saturday, we got to discussing game design theory a bit, as I was putting my game books in boxes. As she has done in the past, Krista expressed her annoyance at my game theory babble, saying she really couldn’t tell what practical use it was (a testament to my rotten explanatory skills, I would say). Then we began talking about the structure of play in Dogs in the Vineyard and The Shadow of Yesterday, and how the players’ choices pretty much create the plot and drive play.

She had an epiphany. I finally managed to explain this. She explained to me that she had been having all of this trouble all along because she was trying to create a plot, and then couldn’t figure out how to work all of the characters in. And she was having trouble coming up with a plot in the first place. Suddenly, a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She could let us do the work, and worry about NPCs and backstory as the players created scenes and supporting characters with our contributions. Now she is excited about running the game and is eager to get things moving.

It felt great for me to be able to help her make a breakthrough on this game, and to finally describe all of this theory bullshit in a way someone who hasn't been discussing this for years could understand. When folks talk about a “great GM”, they are usually talking about someone who listens to the players contributions and makes game play about them and their characters. This concept is so fundamental to how to play an RPG and have a good time, and yet it is so rarely communicated. I’ve run games instinctively, learning these techniques over the years of role-play GMing that I have done. Through trial-and-error I discovered what techniques work. I rarely start with any materials, just a basic idea of possible villains and a direction for the plot. Then, I take whatever the players contribute and construct the game around that. For those of us raised on "modules," this can be a difficult transition.

Game Design Related

I've created this new blog specifically for game design related posting. I was doing a lot of this over at my LiveJournal account, but I think I really have two "audiences." One is fellow game designers and enthusiasts, who aren't as interested in the ho-hum posts of everyday life, and then those friends who may be interested in these day-to-day details but are bored silly by game design posts.

So, why not have two blogs, I say. This one is for game related stuff, and I will be tracking the progress of my various projects here, posting problems and things I am thinking about, or just general ruminations on game design. The other blog will be more personal and will deal with my life in general.