Saturday, January 6, 2018

How to keep people engaged in your games for years ...

Not what I imagined my second post in 2018 to be, but I take material where I can get it. Saw a post yesterday on the interwebz about how to keep players engaged in your campaigns engaged for years (here) and while I respect the authors opinion (especially if he can make it work for himself and his group ...) I also disagree to a point where I think that taking his advice as generally applicable does a disservice to the DMs out there and to the hobby in general. Here's me adding to this in the hopes that it opens some productive dialogue and maybe a different, less (for lack of a better word) desperate collection of ideas how to keep people engaged.

First of all: we are not inventing the wheel here!

In other words, do the fucking research, goddammit. If you google "how to keep people engaged", you'll get a shitload of business articles how to do so. Just by surveying the first two entries, I found only advice completely contradicting the points in the post linked above. Why? Because if you want to keep people engaged, you have to take them seriously and you have to involve them. It's on the DM to offer, not to decide how the offer is to be taken.

Of course we have to distinct a bit between players and employees, but the relations DM-Players and Boss-Employees are similar enough in many regards to get some great pointers from the research done in management and business studies. What's more, they actually do that research (compared to, say, our hobby). It's not just opinions.

Anyway, let's take the same research linked above and go to "pictures". Usually you'll not only find lots of words about social topics but there's also a very good chance that someone took the time to visualize what you are looking for (if you are aware of that need is optional, btw, I found great stuff by just prowling). Like this, for instance (from an article found here):

Highly applicable for rpgs. Open in new tab for details ... [source]
Note that we are already talking about communities at large here, so we are circling in on where we want to be. They say you'll want to get to the intrinsic motivation part for your group and I agree. Key words are COMPETENCE (the game system, the character, the story and there is even a social dimension to this in our games), AUTONOMY (this one's a bit more tricky, but sandbox play does that for you and I believe that characters getting more and more powerful over time might factor here in as well ... at least it does for me) and RELATEDNESS (completely a social dimension, which our games of course have ... it's usually connected to the argument that that's why playing with friends is so beneficial since it brings a greater sense of connection to the table than just the game; however, I think there is (can be?) more to it).

It'd lead too far to explore the picture above in its entirety (we are just doing the research here, for now), but it's save to say that it not only shows how keeping people engaged works, it also shows why it applies to some degree in that post linked above while also pointing out why those 6 ways can lead to participation but not engagement.

Alright, let's see if we can find something gaming specific. The closest thing we can get is looking at research done about computer gaming. TED talks are always a good way to start (for instance this one about 7 ways games reward the brain), but I'll go with one example that seems a bit off course and still brings the point across I want to make. Follow this link and check out a post about computer game design and how to make difficult games fun.

Here's the synopsis for those not having the time to read the whole thing: if you want to keep people engaged, you raise the challenge as they get more and more competent in what they do and give it a clear reward structure to allow them to assess their own success.

There is, as I said, tons of material out there talking about this subject, with several degrees of research and science put into it and yet more material to go from there. What we have is plenty to make a somewhat informed list of tips how to keep people engaged in our games. If you read along and followed the bread crumbs you should already have more than enough general ideas.

One last thing, though. We should take a look what's already written about it in D&D circles (as using D&D will have the most traction as a search term). There are, of course, several hits. The first two are most on point here, with the main take away after a short superficial look is that people need to get rid of their mobile devices during the game. There is more, but it is also all over the place and addressing several connected issues somewhere between very general and very specific.

You could also do yourself a favor and check what the game supplement of your choice has to say about this subject (as I believe rule books should address that issue as well). It'd go too far in the context of this post, but I'll take a quick look into the Rules Cyclopedia and see if I can find something ...

[runs away to read ... gets back to the computer]

Alright, there's advice all over the place, some vague, some outdated and some very useful. Here's a good piece I could find by checking for campaign advice real quick:
"The campaign and the adventures within it are very similar to a series of fantasy novels. The characters are the heroes and heroines in these novels; focus the action on them. A campaign is only useful when it fulfills the purpose of the game: Fun. An inexperienced DM can easily become caught up in the creation of a gloriously detailed medieval empire, only to find that the players want something simple. You should talk with your players about their interests and create a fantasy world that entertains and satisfies both you and your players."
There is A LOT to be said about this piece of advice alone, but it boils down to a very common theme already established here: our hobby is about people. People need to communicate and find common grounds to get along. There are thousands of rule books out there and if my experience is any kind of indication, a search for valuable advice might vary to a huge degree (which is a problem, of course, but nothing I will go further into in this post).

Enough with the research.

How to keep people engaged, then?

Well, how explicit is the advice we can give? It's all wildly individual and if you can make it work, all power to you, regardless how you managed to do it. From a more general point of view, I see several aspects one could consider to use in his or her own role playing games. This will be hugely colored by my own opinion (if that hasn't been clear), so YMMV. However, all of this can be found in or concluded from the research linked above.

1. Take the people you play with seriously:
Warts and all. We are all individuals with different quirks and flaws and limitations and idiosyncrasies and preferences. Embrace that, if you can. Compromise and choice are what make relationships work properly. A player might tag along because he likes to roll dice, another one is there for the story or her character ... you know what I mean. They don't need to share your vision to participate in a meaningful way in the fun of the endeavor. Getting along is key, seek those people.

2. That said, be able to work a crowd:
Acknowledging that people are different leads to needing the means for uniting all the moving parts of the group into one cohesive entity. It means doing what's necessary to make the game happen in the best possible way. This can go from finding a great place to play to determining a seat order for the players for better synergy. It can mean formulating rules to get along (like banning mobile devices or politics from the table). Communicate the game on a regular basis, but don't forget that people have lives. Have a BBQ every once in a while (or similar group activities ... basic team building stuff). Showing interest and consideration can go a long way. If you take care, people will stay.

3. Allow growth:
This has several dimensions. It goes for the DM as well as for the players, but it also goes for the group dynamic and how people see themselves in it. It also goes for the assumed powers and dependencies that exists in a group. In short, look for healthy relationships on the table. They form the fertile grounds for personal growth.  It's all connected to 1. and 2., of course, but it deserves a point in itself since it highlights a very important role a DM has in his group. It's also something one should be able to assert quite easily, as we could argue that the amount of fun a group has is directly connected to this. Pointers are, if the players take the game seriously, do they learn the rules, do they know the story, do they have goals within the game they try to follow up on regularly ... and are you aware of those things? People tend to keep doing something if they think (consciously or not) they get something out of it. Ideally that means growth in some form or another and it is on the DM to offer (for instance) a healthy environment for personal growth.

Too much? Idk, I lie it :) [by Josephine Wall, source]
4. Choose your tools wisely:
This takes some practice, but you need to know what you want and what game will fit that bill best. You want a campaign lasting for years? Look for a game that allows for the right level of complexity and range to support something like that (example: the D&D RC with characters going through up to 36 levels with the option for immortality, adding several cycles of characters to that ... it also has a mid-level and end game). You want one shots? You'll want games that allow for short narrative loops and don't necessarily need level progression. It'll also most likely draw a different crowd ... Experiment and read, ask people what they liked and why. After that, get good at that game. Skill will always convince people that it's a good idea to stay in a group.

5. Fluctuation is Continuity:
If there is any continuity in life than it is change. We know that. Clinging to something to a point where we start giving up ourselves beyond compromise is always a sign that we are not willing enough to let go. A general assertion, but consider it a touchstone for anything related gaming. You keep checking for the same rules all the time? Let it go and find an alternative. A player you love starts developing other interests and keeping him in the game gets more and more difficult? Let him go (or her). A campaign doesn't click with the group and they keep trying to get away from it ... you get the picture. Embrace change, but offer continuity as good as you can. Make it work, keep a rhythm for gaming nights, recruit new players and see what sticks. Something always does.

That's all I can come up with for now. I think the beauty of our hobby is that we never need to stop exploring it in all its facets. In many ways this is the major draw for most of us, I imagine. Play, write, design, grow ... It'll keep you busy for years. A good pizza delivery doesn't hurt along the way (says the girlfriend), but that goes without saying :) Feel free to add to this in the comments or wherever I can see it.

One final thing: I know lots of people rely on some sort of online variant for getting their rpg itch scratched and it can help with that. However, I have yet to hear from a person that says it is the superior way to play and for me personally it could never substitute for the "real thing" (although I really appreciate the opportunity to play with people all over the world!). There are always people out there willing to play. If it works or not is something we need to engage to find out.

Get out there and talk people into it. Even if they just play once and have a great time, you have managed something spectacular and who knows, maybe they'll pick up the game themselves and play with someone else because of it. What I'm saying is, it's all worth it. I hope this contributes to the discussion. Here, have a funny give at the end:

Harmony in dance ...[source]

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 in Review - yeah, I do that too ...

Not much to look at, tough. It's been a slow year here on the blog. 30 posts ... not an all time low, but way too close to be comfortable. Life's just too damn crazy right now to allow for more. I hope this changes a bit in 2018. I have plans, of course, but as they say: a plan is a list of things that do not happen. Anyway, let's look back at 2017! I'll try and make it interesting.

Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (the elephant in the room)

It's been a good year. Mostly due to very enthusiastic play-testers in the f2f games and in virtual space. One of my players in the local group even agreed to DM the game a bit and gave me a chance to play a character for a change. I died. Fast. Good times :) I did not heed my own advice. Lost Songs has cooperation deeply ingrained into the combat system. Fighting alone is a game of luck you'll most likely lose in the long run ...

I also finally managed to write a magic system that holds up in play-testing! Two years of hard brain work right there. It needs to connect a bit more with the system, but it's all there and just needs to be done. Here, have a peek:
Open in new tab for details ... There'll be a post
explaining it all in the near future.
There's still lots of work to do with the game, but I feel confident that it will eventually happen. Couldn't say when, though. Those things take the time they take and that's a good thing. Other construction sites I need to tackle are (in no particular order):

  • The seasonal aspect of the game. I talked about this a couple of years ago. Still needs to happen. The concept I'm working on includes some sort of rune oracle attached to the Narrative Generator.
  • Another thing I'll need happening is the tribe generator I've also been talking about a couple of years ago (see here). I have a clearer picture now what I'll need and how it connects to the game. And the sandbox needs it, so it'll happen soon.
  • The third big construction site is how non-player characters, monsters and combat work on the DM side of the screen. I've talked about this a lot recently and you can see some of this on the magic grid posted above. Most likely the next thing I'm working on, as it connects too many things in the game to get ignored any longer.

All of those are partially done to one degree or another. It'll need testing, of course, and after that the game needs another revision where all that stuff gets connected properly. That's the finishing line and it is in sight. Still, could be another 2 years before Lost Songs will be that complete. We are getting there, though :)

The Blog in 2017

I know, it's not much to look at count-wise. Content-wise that might be another story. I've written some looooong posts this year, chewing on some ideas and concepts of gaming like a dog on a bone. Some of this got read, some of it got received well and there's always people out there who are willing to read and comment on my thoughts. I appreciate you all!

It's hard to gauge what works best for the blog and what tanks. Walls of text certainly don't help the traffic, it needs time and dedication from the reader, which is a lot to begin with. However, if I get feedback, it is always from those who actually sat down and read it all, so it's always worth to sit down and write it all. That said, it's the design philosophy posts that get the most traffic (which is good, as I don't intent to stop writing them ...), D&D always draws a crowd (need to write some more Oddities posts in 2018, I suppose) and the Lost Songs stuff comes after that (seems that there are a couple of people interested in seeing where it goes).

What I didn't get to do often last year was writing reviews. Not that I lacked material, but when I started having less and less time, something had to give. Didn't have the time or the energy. I hope that'll change in 2018. Another thing that fell a bit short last year were community projects and cross-blog chatter. The blog is over 5 years now and I've been lurking for much longer. If I look around today I see it all changed. Many, many blogs I loved to read and share content with are gone some way or another.

I'm sure there's lots of new great stuff out there, but lack of time lets me only find some of it every now and then. Doesn't help that I'm really not interested in 5e. Just won't play it. I generally think I have reached a point of saturation (tried to capture my thoughts on this in a post here, if you are interested).

All the shit storms didn't help. There seems to be trend in which people online try to compensate a lack of content with what they believe to be "personality" and "opinions". Fuck that noise. I'm here to talk elf games and DIY and history and philosophy of the hobby. If I have nothing to say about those topics, I'd rather write nothing than wasting my and other people's time with bullshit politics. YMMV, of course, and I agree that it can be entertaining to watch in moderate doses. However, if that's ALL that's happening in a sad attempt to sell stuff or gain followers, it gets old fast.

It's actually one of the biggest changes here on the blog: I ignore those people now. My blog-roll is somewhat shorter for it and the OSR banner is down. I'm still "old school", I just don't think the OSR is heading into a good or healthy direction. Compare what's happening now to what was going on, say, 6 years ago on OSR blog-rolls and you'll know what I mean.

What else? Projects! (there's a free game in it, too)

There's of course a couple of project developing here on the ranger. I guess it's something that happens when you blog long enough. There is, of course, Lost Songs of the Nibelungs as the main project, but I'm also still collecting material for The Grind (card-based action rpg in a steampunk-setting) and the Goblin-Tribe Simulator is not forgotten (if neglected, but I can't change that for now).

However, nothing of that got finished in 2017. What I did get done, though, is publishing my very own first module. Took me only the biggest part of 2016 and a good chunk of 2017 to get there, but Monkey Business saw the light of day on the 1st of May 25017. There was some positive reception about it and I know for sure that's there are people out there who enjoyed it for what it is. That alone makes the effort worthwhile, but it also was great fun writing it. Expect more of the same soon (see below).

I did not manage to make a print version available, though. Time just wouldn't allow it. That it'll happen is all I can say right now.

Another thing I did and didn't talk about that much here on the blog, was a editing and layout job for one of +Mark Van Vlack's games: Phase Abandon. It's a fantastic little DM-less and rules-lite game. The layout and editing was merely an exercise, a fun side-project and a present for a friend. However, Mark decided to make it accessible on drivethru and there you can get it for free (just follow the link on the name of the game ...)! Check it out, it's a great game.

That pic had been in the public domain without any
kind of attribution & I love it for so many reasons ...
if anyone knows the artist, give me a shout!
And that's about it. Considering how busy I had been last year, this is plenty.

What 2018 might bring ...

More of the same, I guess. I'll try and review a couple of things I read and liked last year. More free stuff, if I can find it! I'll also try and position myself away from the OSR, maybe as some sort of branch (?). I'm thinking about labeling my publications
"OSG" for: Old School Gonzo
(or Gamers / Geeks / Goodness / Glory / Grognards / Groove .... there's plenty of good words starting with "g"). I'll whip something up in that direction. Maybe as soon as for my next publication. The blog needs a new banner, too, so ...

Next up projects will be a modern day supplement for Labyrinth Lord/Mutant Future called
"be1967 - A Game of Extraordinary Splatter"
(the "be" stands for Basic Edition - it's not a new game, though, just a collection of rules to make it work with LL/MF). It's something I needed to write for the next weird adventure module I'm working on called:
The Rise of Robo-Hitler -
A Grindhouse-Splatter Extravaganza
A module following the simple credo that Hitler can't be killed often enough ... More about this soon. The supplement already saw its first play-test (with a group of ten people, 5 of them being newbies to rpgs in general ... it's been crazy) and it is fun to write. I'll aim to publish it in 4 months. Let's see if this works out. Probably not :) But it's happening this year, I can tell you that much. be1967 might see a first publication here on the blog as early as this month.

I've also been asked to do some editing for +Jay Murphy's
USR Sword & Sorcery Deluxe Edition
(check out his blog here). It sounds like a great project and I'm looking forward to work with Jay. Interesting times, I'd say.

Here's to the next year!

Turned out to be a long one again. Ah, well. I'll keep writing them as long as you guys keep reading them. 2018 already shapes up great and I hope it'll be a little bit more productive than the last one. What I wouldn't change is my readers, the g+ crowd and the commentators here actually engaging in dialogue about my scribblings and (of course) the people I had the pleasure to game with (special shout-out to +Van Noa and the A&A group!). You guys are awesome and I hope we get to exchange as much thoughts and ideas as we did the years before. Good show, folks, good show!

2018, here we come!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

A very different take on Monster Stats - Part 2 (about complexity, emergence & encounters in LSotN)

I know it's somewhat silent on the blog right now, but it's quite busy behind the scenes, actually. I started writing another module (more on that later this year), made some progress on that other game I started writing (The Grind, maybe some of you remember) and I even got some progress in developing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (magic is finally working! - also worth another post). One part of Lost Songs I'm eager to write is the new concept for how encounters work. So while I started writing this post about how to improvise puzzles in role playing games, I stumbled across something closely related, yet totally different: the underlying assumptions behind the system I'm in the process of writing (you can read Part 1 here, if you like, but it's not necessary to read the post below ... unless you want to know how I intent to apply the ideas formulated below). Maybe there'll be a part 3 soon. We'll see.

Willing to wing it ...

Most games will carry a DM places he didn't (couldn't!) anticipate. Some try their hardest to stay with the script, some go with the flow and see where it's all headed. Now, this is no debate about which one of those styles is "better" because I honestly believe that the two don't really compare that way. They are part of a development, a learning curve we all go through when learning the trade to be a DM.

That said, I also believe that the ability to "wing it" is at the higher end of that spectrum. It's where we embrace and brave the wild nature of the game. There is much to be talked about in this area, of course, as a lot of this is about playing the game beyond what rules tend to offer. However, for today I'll just tackle one of the hurdles we have to master to get away from "scripted" or prepared role playing and that is to improvise continuity to a degree that it feels as genuinely complex as a prepared game would.

"Complexity" is the key word here. Really, do yourself a favor and google that word or follow the link I put in the previous sentence. It's for instance interesting in that you can trust chaos to produce discernible patterns eventually. This may seem like I'm far off topic here, but hear me out on this. Because clever monkeys that we are, we are very able to not only recognize patterns, we are even more capable of giving meaning to those patterns. Not necessarily truth, mind you, but meaning. And while this ability decides about a lot of crucial things in day to day life, it is also a great tool to utilize in gaming.
Title of the pic is complexity_small_version ... [source]
Take any written language as example: you got a couple of easy symbols that connect to somewhat more complex words that connect to sentences which can connect to all kinds of texts, contexts, subtexts and all kind of complex shenanigans. Just imagine someone unable to read the page you are looking at right now and compare it to how meaning emerges with deciphering it bit by bit. Take that and change it to graffiti or all kinds of artsy endeavors using language as a jumping point ... you get my drift. Complexity is all around us and we learn to recognize it.

Another crucial aspect of complex systems is that everything is somehow connected, although often beyond our scope of perception. Or maybe that's just seeing it from another perspective, because context describes the very ability about recognizing the patterns I described above. We just need to see part of a pattern to recognize its origin, sometimes we are even able to pinpoint the general or precise position of an element in the context of the bigger system. You might recognize a language by looking at a sentence or part of a mathematical formula, music, a taste ... stuff like that.

The right amount of complexity?

All of the above is true in a general sense, but it'd be wrong to assume that everyone is a specialist in everything. So when we design puzzles traps or riddles, we should avoid all but the most basic common denominator and go from there. Like, while we cannot all be meteorologists, most of us will be able to come to some right conclusions if the necessary knowledge is part of the emerging pattern.

Emergence, then, deals with the idea that the sum of parts can lead to something else. And while you'll usually find this discussed by going from the results backwards, as this is how we learn to repeat patterns, it most certainly has merit to release chaos and see what pattern emerges from it. Both are extremely useful in gaming.

Says it all ... [source, by Leo Cullu]
Actually, both are two sides of the same coin in that they (generally) describe what the DM knows in context with how that knowledge emerges for the players and how their interactions with that in turn impacts and informs what the DM had established and so on. It's a information based feedback loop between players and DM in which the DM had a pattern prepared and the players explore pieces of it, make sense of it where they can while changing more than they are aware of as the DM puts the new information into context.

Basically, the DM knows the big bad of an area is a lich and what impact that has on all the aspects the setting. That lich is the sum of the parts, so to say, and as the characters explore the setting, a pattern emerges (all the parts separately) for the players to piece it together. A map would be another good example for this: the DM knows and describes it, the players try to recreate it. When they try to draw conclusions about the whole map we have exactly what I'm describing here.

Let's say the players manage to kill the lich. Following the above, it'd end in chaos (the power vacuum) with a new pattern forming (the vacuum is filled somehow). Again, player actions inform the greater pattern for the DM, which then is looped back to the players (civil war breaks out because the reign of the lich ended and the characters are in the middle of it, for instance). And so on ...

The question now is if the lich had to be there to begin with to have the impact in the game that it should have. Where do we measure the right amount of complexity? On the player side or on the DM side? Fact is that players (because: pattern recognizing monkeys, see above) will sooner or later recognize if it's all just made up on the spot, which will have them believe that their insights have no meaning at all. And that sucks. Experience furthermore tells me that it is way more satisfying to have something prepared to riff off of ...

That's the conundrum I was talking about in the beginning while adding another dimension to it: It's not only about how much you have to prepare, it's also about how you communicate that knowledge. Encoding, decoding, if you will. In that regard you can prepare too much or too little or it doesn't matter because you can't let the pattern emerge properly. However, at it's core it's about how the pattern emerges for the players and how much meaning the complex system carries.

Mosaic pictures are a good example for emergence, I guess.
Check the source for details on the pic [source
So ... it's not about how big your campaign binder is?

It can be, but the important thing is it doesn't have to be. I would say that a DM is on the same side as long as he is far enough ahead of the players that their decisions and guesses can impact it. That's what ultimately resonates with them. And don't forget how the rules of the game form another, more immediate pattern that helps carrying a game with yet another system. Or is it?

I made the argument in an earlier post (or was it a comment? not sure ...) that a campaign setting is nothing else but another set of rules (Tékumel was the example I raised for a very strong setting that works like that, if I remember correctly). If true, it would most certainly challenge our perception of what a complete set of rules should or could do.

There's also some room to explore between the rules that have an immediate impact on the game and the rules implications a setting might bring. It's exactly in this room where we can find out how much complexity the game needs to emerge with plausible coherence.

In other words, let's see this from the player side for a moment. The first time they are made aware about the lich's power is by encountering some of the suffering his minions cause or some stories in that regard. It's like the outer rim of influence the creature has. At this point they might not be aware of the lich at all, not even that the encounter connects to it. The DM knows, though, but the only thing important at in this moment is to know that there is a connection to something bigger and how big that something is.

It's important here to see that all information the players can glean at this point goes beyond finding out that there is more to the encounter than thought at first. A simple set of possible decisions at this point would be to follow up on it or ignore it. Nothing is gained from the DM knowing that the lich is behind it.

In other words: there needs to be no lich at this point.

As long as the DM knows how deep this goes and keeps track of the emergence, it should all be good to go. A system supporting this should be aware of how those things emerge. I imagine it to be something like an onion where randomly, layer by layer, is determined how it fits to the pattern, making it more an more concrete with every relevant encounter.

And again, you don't need to know how an encounter is connected before it happens, just as it happens is totally enough. Like, if you roll up the encounter and the evil entity comes up, everything else will fall into place right then and there (because all you have to work with is what is already established in connection with what is about to be revealed).

See as the story unfolds ... [source]
Well, what's an encounter, then?

First of all, since this is about a game with a lot of talking, encounters are merely information or hints how to interact with a changing narrated world. It's where what is happening at the table changes direction. Going from there, encounters can be measured by the scale they have or how they resonate with the setting. It's all random at this point, but is it just something happening momentarily or maybe locally? Are there wider implications to consider?

Remember, it makes (or should make) no difference to the players, as the emergence is still ensured. The only thing that changes is how far the DM has to plan ahead. The way I see it, he has to trust the chaos to form patterns as he feeds it while interacting with the players.

Go one further: if it's all about a never ending feed of information, why, then, do we need monster stats? What are we keeping track of? The figment of the idea of a creature? In the end it's a matter of consequence. Of scale. You don't need the stats of monsters, you just need to know what happens if a creature is interacted with and that's just more information waiting to happen. Or maps, for that matter? Why have them if the players are going to draw their own as they explore a setting?

I know, I know, the numbers game is one of the tropes of our hobby. Every monster needs its stats and maps are pretty, right? It's also something deeply rooted in the war games history of the hobby where different units and accurate maps are necessary. Is the same true for role playing games? I'd at least like to challenge that assumption for my own game. 

But where do you go from there? Well, I go into part of that in Part 1. Basically you'll need depth, kind and scale of a character. Something like: "12 (scale) epic level (depth) Roman soldiers (kind)" and some other elements that elevate an encounter from circumstantial to immediate (attacks, damage capability, saves, stuff like that - Lost Songs will use runes here ... easy to draw and loaded with meaning). The thing is that encounters are entities within a certain, measurable sphere and not (necessarily) single entities.

It's a top-down thing in that you get one value for, say the influence the lich has on its surroundings (say 10.000 points) and every time the characters interact with this sphere, they leave marks on it. Reducing the point value results in xp, but it can not only be done by weapons, it could also be done by spreading rumors or whatever else the characters can come up with to reduce this sphere ...

But that's something I have to go into in Part 3, when the actual thing is written and ready for testing.

What's to take from this?

The reason for all this is that I'm really lazy with the bookkeeping in my games and if I can come up with a way to make all this happen with just a couple of numbers and signs, than I'll do just that. Funny thing about it is that I don't mind the work up front to get there.

Complexity always starts small and builds from there, either as you explore it or as it emerges from somewhere. And that's how you build everything in the game. That's really something to keep in mind when DMing: regardless of the amount of preparation you put into something, you can only transmit it one word of information after another and more often than not it's indistinguishable on the receiving end if it's something just invented or planned long ahead as long as its emergence is coherent and allows meaningful interaction.

Also remember: there's always a pattern to be found in chaos. Trust the chaos :)

More on the whole deal when I finish my first draft of the system I'm working on to actually use all this in Lost Songs.

This is originally about management skills, but dammit, it's all there ... [source]

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Plot immunity - what is it good for?!

... absolutely nothing, as the song goes. Just saw the second season of Stranger Things and for all the good elements it had, the one thing that really threw me off had been the plot immunity the characters got. I thought that bullshit died a horrible death in the nineties. Or at least after the first seasons of Game of Thrones. Not so much, it seems. Well, it is a problem with role playing games, too, so I thought I'd talk about it a bit here on the blog.

Definition Time!

Google it and the best possible definition of Plot Immunity will be at TV Tropes. It is scarcely discussed in rpg circles and more often than not people seem to associate it with games that have a strong emphasis on narratives or storyteller games in general (or whatever you tell that one group of games people are hating about ... it's all bullshit, of course, but more on that later). So understanding is most of the time sketchy at best and you'd think this is a simple topic where you can just as easily decide which side you are on. You'd be wrong. It challenges how we perceive games in a profound way.

First of all, when talking Plot Immunity (or Plot Armor, if you will) in the context of role playing games, you need to know what you are playing. Plot Immunity is only a thing if another mode of play is intended with the set of rules you are using. That means, for Plot Immunity being a problem, it needs to contradict the rules as written (and that's NOT including DM advice how to play a game ... but more on that further below).

So there might be rpgs out there that have a specific arc (like 44: A Game of Automatic Fear, where characters are very likely to get turned into the enemy over time) or where they try to emulate a specific genre (like Castle Falkenstein, where characters don't necessarily die, but will more likely end up as the enemies hostages ... it's a pulp genre thing).

The short of it is, there are instances where the problem does not occur or where not utilizing it one way or another would have a negative impact on the game (if you neglect people in 44 to switch sides, the game is effectively killed and if you start killing off characters in Castle Falkenstein, you'll get a very serious shift in tone).

What we are talking here, is EXPECTATIONS. A good part of that would be proposed in a set of rules, the rest is among the DMs duties when setting up a game. If everyone at the table is clear about, for instance, the grade of mortality in the game, people shouldn't be too surprised if things happen as announced.

In that sense, Plot Immunity is the conflict between the expectations everyone in a specific game is having versus what you can get away with as a DM (suspension of disbelief, again). When those two collide, you'll end up with a disjointed game. To say the least.

That whole battle of the bastards had been a disappointment, btw. [source]

But it's not only that. There's something to be said about how "difficult" a game is perceived to be ...

Detour: What's a challenge, exactly?

There's another misconception. In rpg circles it's widely assumed that games need to be "balanced" to offer a "fair" challenge to players. Actually, there's a long ongoing feud between those who believe it's the way to go and those who say it is bogus. I'm not going to solve this problem here (if you are reading this and know my blog, you probably have a good grasp where I stand on those matters and somewhat agree, since you came back).

What I'm going to say, though, is that among the serious game designers, that is, those writing computer games (forgive the polemics, but that's the impression I get every time I check what designers of computer games say about those things ... they actually do studies and shit), well, those people actually came to the conclusion that the right amout of challenge is not buffing the enemy or scaling him to the skill the characters/players presumably have, but instead offering room for the player to grow in skill while he's facing the challenges a game offers (here is an interesting article about the subject).

In general, what makes a challenge is the thin line between avoiding tedious exercises and giving too difficult/hard tasks, while constantly keeping the player engaged. This includes having fall back mechanisms available for when a character fails. Hit points work like that to an extent, but another rule I like to use in my games, is giving the players the xp they've earned in the session their character died to invest in a new character.

However, although those concepts are all necessary, they are also offered on the system-side of things and don't really address the problem you'll get at the table. Because even if it where possible to include balancing factors into game mechanics that actually work (which I still doubt, tbh), it can't and will never take the player skill into account. Or that players can get better at what they are doing. Or that the rules are not the game but rather one aspect of what transpires at a table.

To make a game challenging means offering players a learning curve and enough tools to measure their own skill level. For that it needs constants, like Monster abilities, the damage ranges you can expect from certain weapons, reward-oriented behavior structures (a fighter gets xp for ..., a thief for ...) or tell-signs in the narrative (one of the more difficult tasks of a DM is offering hints about a potential danger in a way that forces thread-assessment by giving just the right amount of information without giving anything away).

That's what it's all about: encouraging players
to do something ... ill advised [source]
There is a more where that came from. But honestly, there's even more unsaid and unexplored about this subject. How is player skill measured? With computer games it's comparatively easy, you just check your score and your achievements. Online you could even go as far as comparing your skill with others. In rpgs, though? Nobody seems to care enough. For one, you'd need to have comparable base lines to even start an evaluation, which would actually force the industry to come up with standards (DM-badges, maybe ... anyway, it's a hot topic I'm brushing here, so I'm leaving that as an open question).

As a matter of fact, why is the question never asked how we accept so easily that in computer games the score is self evident as a measure of our skill in a game, while it in analogue role playing games is merely reduced to being a metric of how well a character does? Ponder on that for a while.

So ... Plot Immunity

Plot Immunity is when a (non-)player character cannot die because he's/she's important for the/a story, although dying is very much possible (the expectation/suspension thing mentioned above). We have all seen this, I'm sure. In Stranger Things [SLIGHT SPOILER], which is a mystery/horror setting, not one of the main character gets even harmed, while one of the newly introduced characters has to die in the most stupid way one could imagine [SLIGHT SPOILER ENDS HERE]. It's very bad writing and just as bad DMing if it happens at the table. Here is why as a result of the above established argument.

If we can agree on the concept of what a challenge is (that is, a process by which a player gets the opportunity to grow and get better at playing a specific game), then it is obvious that for that to actually happen, a player needs to be able to experiment with a game and assess his chances. This happens by observing success and failure and for that it needs constants. Plot Immunity, obviously, threatens those constants (if you get too much damage, you die ...) and creates false expectations/assertions about how a game works (if you don't die although you should have, you'll keep doing the same mistakes until suspension of disbelief kicks in and the fun of it goes away ... it becomes a tedious exercise).

Not only that, to play it that way will almost always have you ending up bullshit plot devices like deus ex machina events or all kinds of implausible coincident to make it all work. Nothing good will come from this (and here's a list).

It says it all on the card [source]
Furthermore, to expand on this, I'd like to address the argument that this is about telling a story. The thing is, in role playing games we mostly don't know what story we will end up with. The fun is to find that out. And if the story is "promising young hero with prospects of marrying the princess and spoiling the bad wizards ploy dies from a random encounter with goblins in the woods" than that is that particular story.

It needn't end there, too. Other characters may decide to bring his corpse to the princess and avenge the death by purging the goblin pest from the kingdom or looking for a new suitor for that lonely princess. Or the characters brother is trying to fill that dead brothers way too big shoes and there's still that wizard at large. It's about the story all those involved in the game experience, not necessary about one specific character. Or at least not to a point where Plot Immunity is deserved.

Same goes for non-player characters. You telling me the main villain botched and broke his neck falling down some stairs? So what? Embrace it! There is a power vacuum to be filled by someone else now and whatever that villain had planned, might still come to pass, maybe it gets worse, maybe it had been for the better (... not). However, the narrative goes on. No character in a story actually deserves that kind of protection.

A little nuance, please!

Such a thing as a "pointless death" does not exist in role playing games. Actually, if you try to make that argument for anything that transpires at your table, you either failed as a DM or as a player. End of story. There are, however, gray areas in between to explore. Just because it's possible to die in a game, doesn't mean one has to all the time. It's just not for the DM to decide when something like that is to happen or not, it's (and there's your nuance) that the system is used in a way that the possible outcome doesn't have to be death, although it very well might be.

Saving Throws work that way, so do hit points (with rules for dying or dismemberment or what have you), resurrection spells are a possibility (but for that you'd have to die) and the enemy could also always have a motive to keep you alive for some reason or another ... In other words, what player skill can't address should be covered by the system, by the DM and, to some degree (!), by the narrative. As long as you are just exploring where the journey is going instead of trying to get it somewhere specific, you should be okay.

I guess a word to simply cheating with the dice behind the screen to avoid character death. For one, players will catch up sooner or later (especially if they aren't hit often enough although they should have been ...) and when that happens, it hurts the game. However, done in moderation it can help adjusting previous mistakes or judgments a DM did.

I've seen this discussed occasionally and people tend to have strong opinions about the subject (never cheat! it hurts the players/the game/your mother!). As with all things, there is no one answer. There is one thing, though, and it's universally acknowledged to be true: the DM is the last arbiter of the rules. He is the buffer between the game and the players. So if a DM decides that 10d6 damage is too much in a certain case, he's well within his rights to change those results (within reason and considering the caveats above). My 2 cents.

Basically: just don't use it!

Or else ... Just kidding :) [source]
In summary you could say: find ways to avoid plot immunity at all costs. There are many, many legit solutions to protect characters, among them allowing players to learn the game and to get better at it. Just letting something happen, because someone wanted it to happen has nothing to do with stories or role playing, it's just low level impulse satisfaction. In the long run no one gains from behavior like that.

On the contrary, it will most likely hurt the precious pseudo-reasoning leading to decisions like that by diminishing the results once they come to pass. In other words, it doesn't feel like an achievement if getting there didn't really demand anything.

Anyway, I'll stop here. It's enough to chew on, I guess. That whole complex about computer game designers and publishers being way ahead of what happens in our hobby is something I'll never get tired of and will definitely come back to again. For now I hope I was able to show how little things (or the perception of them) can have a huge impact on our game.

I'm also not kidding when I'm saying that all those "balancing" tools that became so popular since 3e (and have existed before, see the Rules Cyclopedia, for instance) are barking at the wrong tree or summon the impression that this (1) is all you need and (2) that games aren't inherently balanced to begin with (which they should be to begin with, if you think about it). It begs the question what those games are lacking that they need those kind of tools to conceal it ... Again, for another post. In some form or another.

As always, comments and impressions are very welcome. How do you guys handle this in your games? What are you doing if you encounter this as players? Do you speak with the DM?

Saturday, November 18, 2017

D&D history in context: some like it demanding (a polemic against the commercialization of our hobby, if you need to know)

Every time I see the argument made that we don't need more than light rules because "the story is the thing" and how all the Great Old Ones rolled that way, I get the feeling that it can't be true. Never really was able to put my finger on the why, though. Now, I just saw this floating past in my stream again and felt that same concern rising. However, this time I remembered a good friend of mine telling me he translated the Nibelungenlied again, in his free time, just for leisure and to experience the original in all its glory. I am now prepared to address this topic among other things. This one is for all the nerds out there.

But Gary did it!

It starts harmless enough. Yes, if you dig deep, you'll find the first big names in our hobby saying something to the effect that they use simplified versions of the games they sell. You just need a die and the yes/no resolution is enough to keep the game going, is what they seem to say. Because, the story is the ... you know the gospel. Fun fact is, though, that none of them stopped writing games (Gygax certainly didn't and his games didn't get less complex, too) or just relied on the established to play their games (Barker, for instance, never stopped expanding on his setting and had a HUGE corpus to loot from for his stories ... actually to an extent that you could say that the setting superseded the rules).

So, there is no "easy" answer to the question how many rules are "just right" for a game. One thing should be clear, though, games with "light" rules certainly aren't the solution to everything. Especially not because of some obscure quotes used out of context. There is an argument to be made that light rules are, in fact, not the "better" tools to tell stories, because that would be like saying that using fewer words would make for better stories as well.

That said, I'd like to add that everything has its place and function and a game being light in rules does not necessarily mean it's bad. There is just no universal truth attached to it other than that it is one way to game.

Furthermore, to claim it is "old school" to use rules light systems is just as much bullshit. If you need proof of this assertion, look how the hobby developed in it's early years, commercially and on the DIY front (check out Arduin, for instance). You will find that it is very much about diversity and individual solutions before anything else. The tenor has not been "less rules" but "make it your own!".

Hence, what all those new light rule systems flooding the market seem to forget (conveniently so, I might add) is that the bare bones version that is the first edition of D&D not only specifically states that it is just to show how it's done and that a DM is to make his own game following those examples (something many, many groups did, btw), it also wasn't considered as "finished".  Here is the quote from the tome itself (OD&D, Vol. 3, p.36, 1974):
There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will oftimes have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing.
Gygax is saying this after having completed roughly 100 pages, spread over 3 booklets. Printing in the 70s most certainly also had an impact on that (limitations we tend to forget nowadays since it is fairly easy to print and/or spread books). Sometimes I wonder how thick those first books would have turned out to be if they could have printed what they wanted. I think how the game developed after that first edition gives us an idea.

Let's take the deep dive here.

A short and partial history of D&D

Of course they added more supplements with the success of the game and a revision of the rules shortly after that (B/X) until the game had matured enough to evolve to AD&D 1e as early as 1977. That's 3 years after the original release! Here is another fun fact: while the last revision of the AD&D 2. edition had been published in 1995, development of that iteration of the game had been going strong until as late as 2009 when Kenzer & Co.'s HackMaster 4e, the true successor of the original D&D, got discontinued. HackMaster had been published as a pure revision of the AD&D rules in 2001 and should be considered AD&D 3e. In other words, it took 27 years of development to get what started as OD&D in 1974 to the level of maturity that is the HackMaster series.

I'd like to stress at this point that this is only talking this specific strain of D&D, not including a plethora of magazines and hobby efforts that also added to it during that time. It also disregards the commercial successors of the D&D brand (3e onwards) and completely ignores every other role playing games written in that specific quarter of a century (for now). Still it's a whole lot of material to go with the original premise of those early books and not just 2 pages of rules with supposedly everything said that needs saying ...

It is only after the corporate attempt to get rid of the original (A)D&D (no new publications and no reprints or pdfs of the early versions of D&D) that the so called old school movement got enough traction to become popular (namely with OSRIC and Basic Fantasy in 2006 and Labyrinth Lord in 2007, all being not that popular in the beginning and falling right into the decline of HackMaster while referencing older/different editions/versions of the game). OSRIC runs 400 pages, btw.

After that Swords & Wizardry (in 2008) and Lamentations of the Flame Princess* (in 2010) made their debut and at some point after that it started earning enough money that the Wizards of that Coast took notice and not only started to make stuff available again as reprints and pdfs, but also incorporated as much as they could into D&D 5e (in 2014). It's also somewhere in that last phase that publication cycles started shrinking dramatically, a development we see now reaching its peak (or already being in full decline, not sure what it is ... the market has reached saturation long ago).

A history to learn from?

The point is, when someone tells you the game needs just one die and one rule to be played and that's how they did it in the early days or that that's "old school", well, then that person is feeding you a line. The history of our hobby is, if anything, one of development and exploration of the possibilities. And while those first games openly embraced and accommodated that fact, while the DIY-corners of the hobby still celebrate it to this day, there is a concerning amount of people openly not only ignoring it, but also trying to re-write that history for their own marketing endeavors (a trend arguably starting with D&D 3e, as far as the corporate version goes).

The things people do to earn a buck, right? However, there is an alarming tendency to not only flood the market with product, the feedback loop is vanishing as well: it's just not possible to find enough meaningful reviews to do all that material justice (considering that people might actually have to have played a module or game to get a proper impression of it's potential makes this even more difficult!). In consequence, published material is reduced to short-sighted and (unfunded) opinionated marketing schemes, innovation gets mostly short-handed or ignored and earlier developed insights/achievements get hand-waved or re-written.

It's crazy. The Taxidermic Owlbear lists over 210 entries of games as D&D "retro-clones" and from what I have seen, it's not complete (the whole Black Hack movement is missing, for instance). It's not far-fetched to say that in the last ten years there have roughly been 2 new and complete D&D clones published per month (on average, of course). Add other games to that, add modules, adventures, supplements. Nowadays no month goes by where you couldn't buy at least 10 new OSR related products. Plus those you can get for free. All mostly unchecked and (or consequently) unplayed. For all we know there might be some brilliant unknown games among them (there are some great known games for sure). It's just all rather unprocessed, I think.

This is neither "old school" nor in the spirit of the hobby. Not to that degree. Right now it's nothing better than milking the masses and adding to the pile. I admit that I partly came to that conclusion due to the latest climate in the gaming community at large where it's no more about the quality as much as it is about the person who wrote/published/talked about it that decides whether something has merit or not (mostly using so called ad hominem argumentation as business model).

The only thing "old school" about the whole affair right now seems to be that it shows the same patterns of inconsiderate and greed-guided commercial harvesting our western culture is known for, if need be by going as low as using politics, elitism and gate-keeping. It's not about the art or the game as medium, it's not (as much) about exploring what's possible or about diversity or being welcoming. It's all become cyclic in a way that people don't do the research for their stuff anymore. It's not important how many times people already have written about a topics or the insights they had, it's about being the first to voice an original thought about descending AC (or whatever), as if that is possible.

It's about ignoring history to keep the train running.

That's not to say we shouldn't write or publish ...

Sounds a bit counter-intuitive at first and I've heard friends already say that they don't dare publishing something because of the thresholds they see in the community. As I said above, the market is saturated and it is mostly not about content or the effort, but about how well something looks or who is associated with it. It's also tough competition, especially if you are not being all political, polemic or loud about it in general.

However, if you are willing to put in the time to write a game or an adventure, you should of course give it your best effort and put it out there. Not because it's published and there are prestige and fame to gain, but because it is all about the journey. Nothing will make you understand a thing better than making it yourself with the attitude to do it as good as possible. As much as this is true for, say, building a boat, it is true for writing a role playing game or an adventure or a monster ... You will gain every time and if you have patience, people will take the time and discuss it with you. Honestly, even if one person reads what I wrote and takes something away, that's a win in my book.

Well, and that's why history is so important. If we take this DIY-ethos seriously, we rely on what is established so that we can move from there. Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that jazz. We need communities that are open for that kind of exploration, but communities start with a couple of like-minded people. We help each other getting better at what we love and, in consequence, maybe get to be better people than we where before. That's why you write, that's why you publish.

If that also gains a little profit and makes you somewhat famous in your corner of the Internet, it's just as well. But if the recent developments have shown anything, than that there comes responsibility with being a public figure and many aren't ready to take that responsibility, it seems (again emphasizing the importance of learning from history, btw).

Anyway, don't do it for a buck, don't do it for the fame, just do it for the thing itself. You'll find nothing more rewarding than that (which goes for everything or whatever you chose).

Now going full circle!

So what has all of this to do with my friend translating the Nibelungenlied just for the fun of it? The short of it is that he was able to do it and he liked the exercise. Even so, there is a whole mindset behind it and it is the opposite of going the easy road. Some people like a task to be demanding, even for leisure. It can't be surprising that the same is true for our hobby. Looking at crunchy but popular games like GURPS or RoleMaster is easy proof of that and they are almost as old as the hobby itself.

However, there is a deeper meaning to it. Something that relates more to the second part of this post, the part about doing it yourself or what that really means. First of all, there had been no pressure but the one he gave himself for doing this. There is a lesson in that, as time is now our highest commodity. He could have gone for a translation instead if he wanted to revisit the story, translating it takes so much more time. It's about dedication.

If you "just" cater the market needs you will have the pressure of deadlines and all kinds of restrictions for form and content. Add competition and market saturation and you'll get an ill climate to be productive. It's so easy to forget that we are not only able to create without pressure, but that pressure actually diminishes and restricts innovation (also and as an aside, giving a market what it wants works to earn money but produces something exceptional only in the rarest of cases, see your standard Hollywood movie).

The market is like a greedy raccoon, just not as cute ... [source]
Or to put it another way: how much time does it take to write a complete role playing game? Done properly, maybe an average of 3 to 5 years? That is including testing and assuming it's done on the side but on a regular basis. You'll also have writing and publishing to consider ... According to the market, you won't get the attention span from the crowd you need to make this worth anybodies while (although kickstarters brought the illusion that it is very much possible ... although for a price and without guaranties). How long does it take to write a proper setting? Or a module like Stonehell? A book? It takes time and dedication.

What I'm saying is, the audience cannot be taken into account for this. No one will listen to you babbling about something for that long unless you are able to keep it interesting all the time (which is unlikely if you are actually working on it, right?). Which is another way of saying, if you do it, do it for yourself before anything else. Forget the market. Let them make the noise and do your thing. If your thing is writing the crunchiest game ever written and takes 25 years to finish, I'd say, hell yeah, please do.

Explore, experiment and create. Question what is already done. Embrace obscurity instead of the mainstream, it's what true nerds always excelled at. And don't listen to people that try to tell you that their marketing scheme to produce as much content as fast as possible by producing light weight copies of already existing games is the "true way" or old school. It isn't. It's more often than not just people looking at your wallet. 

I hope this resonates with some of the people getting this far. I'd appreciate it. Our hobby can do so much more that just sell empty books with funny pictures and we are barely at the beginning to find out what exactly that means (or can mean). As long as people interested in finding out where this journey is headed manage to gather and exchange, it's all good.

For me, well, I guess I will halt and start to look at what was accomplished in the last couple of years. I couldn't keep up with all the noise if I wanted to. There's so much unread stuff on my hard drive, it's uncanny. Enough to read and talk about, I'd say. And then I have to keep writing my own fantasy heart breaker no one is going to read ...

*Which has, interestingly enough, no English Wikipedia entry, but a Finnish one instead ...

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Look! There's a challenge! (rules vs. story ... again)

Hey folks. Long time no post. I have been around but busy. Anyway, just saw this while having my tea and thought "Finally! Someone is starting to take this whole "story vs. rules"-problem serious!". And I somewhat agree with the result. However, this being a challenge, I'll fight it with the scheme I had posted some time ago and connect it with some of the ideas and concepts I came up with. Let's rumble!

First of all, I do not disagree with the +Jack Shear's proposal. I think it illustrates a crucial part of the dynamic between rules and story quite well and I applaud that. That said, I think it is lacking one very important aspect: "story" as a result of playing role playing games is always focused on what the players make of the encounters their characters had. In other words, the elements presented in the post linked above are incomplete as they lack (or merely imply as given?) the sender-receiver relationship necessary for every communication and how that correlates to gaming.

I'm using "encounters" here in a very broad sense, as in, "a story they hear from a peasant in the street is an encounter"-kind of way ... everything in the game is filtered through that lens. There might be other stories (like, what the DM had in mind, for instance), but that is yet another layer in that everyone brings his own story to the table ("Goals" in the scheme below), each feeding into how the story in the game shapes up or what story for the characters is agreed upon.

Here is the version I came up with. It actually applies to all stories, but it sets the rules into perspective and involves how stories are structured or experienced (depending on where the story emerges):

Open in new tab to see it in all it's glory ...

[From the post linked below]: "The CHARACTERS are the center piece and everything resolves around them as ENCOUNTERS in the established WORLD (could be the DM in the moment of play, the world described in a novel or tv series or the world as you see it, to name a couple of examples, narrative would be another good word for it). A WORLD could be defined now by (at least) 4 corner stones:
  • STRUCTURE: or patterns. Structure lets you recognize and work with established patterns in a world. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Is it magic or technology? English or French? All those patterns will shape everything around them and, in the end, the story.
  • THEMES: or labels. It's the selection you chose to describe your surroundings. Easy example would be the description of a game by the winning side compared to that by the losing side ("best referee ever!" vs. "cheating bastard of a referee!"). Fake news is another good example of labeling to influence a story.
  • RULES: or consistency. It's the rules we play by. Could be laws, could be D&D or a social contract, could be grammar ... They are always there to one degree or another and shape how we behave or judge behavior, for instance.
  • GOALS: or motivation. This is what propels the action. You want world domination? That's what you work towards. You are lonely? There you go, you'd want to meet someone. You want xp? Do what you have to do to get them and advance in levels ...
ALL THAT cumulates to STORY, every time, again and again. Depending on the story you tell, the parameters might shift and change in prominence, but they are always in effect. So if you are in the story about a couple of friends meeting to play a game of D&D it will have different parameters than the story the characters of those friends will encounter in the campaign they are playing. While the motivation in the first story might be, for instance, to have FUN, the story in the campaign and what the characters experience might just as well be a tragedy. Those things can happen simultaneously, even without conflicting with each other."

There is more and here's my attempt to collect some of it (including the explanation of the scheme above). I hope this helps giving the whole discussion a bit more fodder as I strongly believe that we are way behind in exploring this. Compare this to how they put some serious research into this for computer games, to give just one example. We need to get out of our comfort zones to see what's possible ...