Believable Battles

Before getting into today’s topic, I want to apologize about my absence, Life got really hectic with losing work and having to move and a whole bunch of other things, but it has settled and thus I am back and ready to resume posting. Also, an announcement that I have also been providing weekly content at Aboard the Airship‘s blog. There is a lot of material here, so check it out and let them what you think.

We all know the old days of RPGs on the computer and consoles where NPCs only had one thing to say, as parodied with Times are Tough guy from RPG World. Things have grown since then, where we now have NPCs who grow to take on lives of their own like Knights of the old Republic had with HK-47 or Planescape: Torment had Morte, but that is because those NPCs have complex dialogue systems that allow them to get multiple lines of dialogue. Granted, even with limitations as far back as the SNES days, Final Fantasy let NPCs have multiple lines of dialogue if they were important enough as Final Fantasy showed us.. But what about those one off types you encounter in the towns? They still only usually say one or two things, in some cases still to this day.

Imagine that in a tabletop game and your players will look at you like you’re crazy, as it destroys pretty much any level of immersion into the game. However, we still do this in other ways with our NPCs, such as the way they fight. Enemy behaviour in video games is similar, where they will be scripted to execute one of a selection of attacks based on however many variables like their health, their magic points, the amount of enemies and their positions (if we’re dealing with tactical combat games like FF:Tactics).  In a lot of tabletop games, NPCs fight like they have nothing to lose because to the Gamemaster they are little more than cardboard cutouts with no real backstory. They will gladly fight to the death instead of running away to fight another time, though some game systems tried to remedy this by adding morale checks. Other times, you’ll have situations like in the Counter Monkey tale of the Leaping Wizards where you can see just how stupid some adventures are written to create encounters that players can win.

There are different levels of awareness in opposition. In D&D type games, this could be represented by an intelligence stat, however you could even just abstract it to the type of enemy it is. Is it an animal? They would generally have limited capabilities for tactics, focusing on things like smacking the person who did the most recent damage to them or the closest person or whatever sort of criteria you may want to choose for them to be focused on in their limited minds. Same way they would probably do things like avoid fires and any intentional damage that they might do to themselves. They may run at the first sign of resistance, unless there is a reason to stay like protecting their young. These are creatures operating on pure instinct using what is essentially the ‘lizard brain ideology of psychology, which is the human limbic system that controls basic elements like fight or flight, feeding, fear and freezing-up, and fornication.

A smarter creature might be able to start with an ambush or even use hit and run tactics. Dart out of a bush, move into attack and back into the bushes. They might be able to use traps or terrain advantages such as leading characters to bottlenecked areas or having them go over compromised ground.

As we get into smarter enemies, you begin to factor in ideas like waiting and planning rather than just reacting to a situation that falls into their lap. Their sort of tactics could include building fortifications or ways to bypass your fortifications, as well as picking the moments to attack when you’ld be at your weakest such as sleeping or even doing things stealthily. These are where I’d say Tucker’s Kobolds could fit in, for example.

You could probably add a level above that, where you look at creatures that can make full use of the terrain and other groups of enemies. Those who can delay their own self-interests and make use of the tools around them to eliminate their enemies. I personally would see this being like people who would realize that by weakening this wall, you could cause lava to flood the area and burn the opposition alive. They could also be the ones who might supply information to goad another group into attacking and then coming in to clinch the battle afterwards.

After figuring out what battle strategies they are capable of coming up with, you can then decide how they will use those skills to implement them. I would also suggest once you start getting into the higher levels of awareness, you also begin to think about how the elements outside of the creature, such as family and friends and the desire to live and see them again, will factor into the decisions that will be made. Some people may choose a heroic last stand where they go down in a blaze of glory to protect their loved ones from a really bad thing, but the majority will think about the fact they want to live because of those close to them and will use that desire in their planning. To quote from Blackjack’s Guide to Bitter Gamemastering,

I decided one session to try GMing without NPC sheets and instead use NPC descriptions. With this change I also made the conversion from plot driven runs to personality driven LIVES. Many interesting things began to happen. First off, my NPCs fought to the death a lot less often. When I thought of a security guard as a B:4 Q:5 S:5 C: 3 I:4 W:3 piece of paper it was a lot easier to let him get wasted. When I thought as him a Jim from Renton with two kids, a dog named Sammy, and a bracelet for his wife’s birthday in his locker, things changed. The Yakuza soldier who normally would have stood in the middle of the street blazing away at the runner’s van before getting run over suddenly started hiding behind stuff and taking more reserved shots. I really liked the feeling of depth and character I got from GMing this way.

Now, he does go on to say that if you have players who don’t have a full set of morals and enjoy killing anyone who gets in their way like they were in an action movie, then you’re going to  have to come up with a way to trick them into seeing your  NPCs as more than just cardboard cutouts. This is his version of a solution for that problem.

[O]ne day, they hooked up with an NPC who went by the street name of Kill Em’ All McKay. McKay needed assistance with a hit on a small gang living in an old apartment complex. As the runners walked up the staircase they encountered a teenage boy who, upon seeing them, turned and ran. One of the runners reacted by mowing the kid down with an SMG. And then, with great drama, Kill Em All McKay, he who is feared by God himself, responded to the action with complete horror and revulsion. “You shot a kid! A goddamn kid!!!”. The boy, who was not entirely dead, proceeded to drag himself with one arm, crying, screaming, and trailing blood, into his mother’s apartment. And, to top it off, his little sister, aged seven years, boldly waddled into the hallway holding onto her blankie and, thorough a river of tears, screamed at the runners for hurting her big brother. The runners mellowed a bit after this.

And, another of Blackjack’s articles gives us another example of why thinking about those who matter to the NPC is important, beyond just how the NPC themselves will act in the face of danger.

The runners have just succeeded in extracting a scientist from a random megacorp and are now leaving via a stolen helicopter on the roof. As they leave a detachment of fifteen corporate soldiers pour onto the roof, weapons deployed, yet hold they their fire because they have been ordered not to harm the scientist. The runner piloting the helicopter decides to react to the sudden appearance of troops by launching a salvo of APMs at the roof. Fifteen killed, no survivors.

Now let’s review the scenario. Granted, the runners had no idea the guards were not going to open fire so the response was at least partially reasonable. Had the guards opened fire the helicopter probably would have been destroyed. The runner eliminated the enemy, thus removing the threat. Or did he? Let’s do some math: 15 guards. I’ll assume five had no family or friends. That leaves 10. I’ll give half of them a spouse, a kid and two friends. The remaining five I’ll give two friends as well. That leaves behind 30 people who are going to be very upset at what the runners did. Odds are at least a few of them are going to want to get even…. …Some may hire runners, some may charge at them with a knife, some may try to blow up their cars, etc. Through the runner’s action he has unleashed a pandora’s box of threat. If the runners did this on a regular basis, the whole world would soon be after them.

So what should the runners have done? I don’t know. Fire one missile and take out a sacrifice guard. Maybe just point the missile tubes at them, that alone would make most of them seek cover. The point is that the runners must realize that every action they take is not without consequence. Some consequences are petty..some are down right deadly.

Using these above tactics will help you build some richer and more realistic combat encounters, varied by the sort of opposition you choose to have your characters face. The little critters who may not do much beyond attack or avoid all the way up to NPCs with various sob stories to go on like:

I was eleven years old. When I was strong enough, I dedicated my life to the study of fencing. So the next time we meet, I will not fail. I will go up to the sixfingered man and say, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Teldore #5: The Bard, The Demon and The Crypt

We solved our way into the fountain that the others were held up with before.  It might be a good thing we were all here as we went down only to get attacked by skeletons and a creature in a pool of water. My first thoughts were I must teach this group to fight as a cohesive unit as none of them have had formal training. However, I think that has been lost as… Boris may be no more.

I solved the riddle of the statue and we were well on our way dealing with monsters, even though the water monster got one almost downed and another got knocked out by skeletons. Of course as I’m bringing the medical care, we have  Boris working on getting to the magical artifact in the room and crushes it in his hand… causing an arcane explosion that seemed to separate his soul from his body.

His last wish was for Maili to take his body to Newt and we shall carry that out for sure, but the next events make me seriously wonder what the future will bring as we apparently stumbled into a much larger war than we knew of.

The Duke is seeking a sword, it sounds like this red one which makes me wonder if he has the second sword. There were two key holes on the upper level, so I assume there were two swords as well. Except the Great Mother told me, a while ago that there were three.

The Demon in the crypt was put there to kill off survivors from the Duke’s search party as he likely did not want word to get out. There was one survivor, a Bard who was being tormented by the evil. I believe that the mind of the Bard was addled by his experiences as he has lost all grace for dealing with people… if he ever had any, who knows the mind of the fey. Legends and fairy tales speak of it, but I never put much stock in things I did not experience as tales can be colored.

Now, we managed to slay the creature with Evandrian the bard’s help. That does not make his shape changing, secret keeping and general…. torment endear him to me or the others but we shall see if he will be a danger to himself or others, as I do not know if he takes anything seriously.

Maili went to return the body of Boris to the Thieves Guild and we shall see the results of that. As that was ongoing, me and Tomas had a bit of a heart to heart about events and… I guess I should cut my team some slack. They may not have the same battle training and so dedication to a cause like I had drilled into me while training. I can’t expect them to embrace sacrifice as easily as I have. The things I have had to give up to serve do weigh on me, leaving my clan possibly for good, maybe never even to have a mate because this calling may take everything from me…. I cannot expect others to follow so easily, so instead I keep them safe, I support their weight to let them keep their heads held high.

Teldore #4: Innagadadavida

While I was doing my prayers and rituals and trying to find what I could about this whole sword thing, the group decided to try some initial surveillance of the castle we are going to break into.

They found some information on a way in it seems, as well as finding some secret garden Grove that they were talking about and these various mysteries. I guess we will see it sometime.

After a time, we break into the jail area for these friends of Boris’ and manage to free them without a lot of trouble, though any prison break is going to be problematic, especially when we end up Great Mother knows where…

In our escape, we made it out to the Grotto that the others examined before and… well, I do not know, it seems a magical place but I do not know exactly what it is, why we were here and not our friends? I guess all will be revealed soon enough. 

Teldore #3: Die By the Sword?

So, we make our way to the city of Delon and definately end up with quite a travel, but the big surprises were coming from getting into the city and what we found there. I mean, what kind of a city has such an issue with apple trade that they flag down merchants? Some strange things were going on in this city, so much so that I wonder if I will have time to help bring the light back to any of them.

First, there was finding out about the sword, this cursed blade I carry with me. I found out some little truths about it but no one seems qualified to do anything or keep it secure, at least no one I could trust. I almost hope to hear something from the Great Mother and have her give me some guidance on how to protect the world from this.

Of course, while I am doing this my friends got up to quite some hijinx, as they somehow got a hold of a brick of some sort. It is supposedly cursed, but I believe that it is just my friends chasing shadows, as they seek out something to make them feel active when they can’t be involved in matters they may not directly understand. I see this as some kind of joke brick, but it is falling flat with me.

I feel this after my meeting with the Goblin King. We were able to make some peace, but I think that my allies may be a little too headstrong to work in such diplomatic times. Sure, I may not have completely understood the nuiances of such, but at least I was able to appease the King enough for an audience, I just hope that the visit to the Thieves Guild went about as well, but I can only speculate.

We are being… hired, perhaps? As a favor to the thieves guild for their aide and information to break into the castle and free their people. I suppose the Duke is not the greatest man so such… deception does seem like it would be a bit acceptable to my tastes, to bring some righteousness back to this system… Of course, I am only going on second and third hand information at best, I need to make sure I am not releasing another plague on the world like I am with this blade.

Puzzling RPG Experiences

I have uploaded a video to YouTube of some examples of using Puzzles in your tabletop games especially if you are nowhere near each other, such as via Roll20. I will add a sequel to this with some more detailed examples but as I had shared them with a Dungeonmaster first I didn’t want their players to get an unfair advantage to the line of thinking. Once they give me the okay, I will adapt the conversation into a post of examples and explanations, but I wanted to get this out as soon as possible.

I apologize for the quality as it was done by phone as my PC currently experiences some overheating problems with the CPU and I haven’t been able to get it looked at yet. Once I get it looked at so it doesn’t shut down midway through rendering the video I should be able to release better quality videos. 

The video in question can be seen here on my channel on YouTube.

Is Disneyland A Sandbox?

I was watching a video from GDC where the speaker was using Disneyland as an example for video game design, about how everything was used to tell a story, from the macro world design of entering the park to the medium level design of the various themed lands and then to the experience of being on the attractions  the micro specific moment or scene that they are experiencing. This was being done for video games, but I figure we can use it for roleplaying games too.

In a video game, you power the game up and enter the world, usually through a narrative cut-scene to set the story for you and then after the story settles and you begin your level, you will usually see how things are crafted for the story they want to tell, the experience they want you to have and tailored almost like one tells a movie with specific choices of camera placements, pre-designed events staged in a certain pattern for you to encounter and so forth.

When designing it for a tabletop RPG the players have freedom to go wherever they want and the GM is the one that gets them there. So, in a sandbox environment, you would start the players on the small scale events and give them larger ones to build onto, things they would see coming as they progress and can plan for, like a theme park goer who walks into the park will make plans for the Roller coaster and then the flume ride and then onto another smaller adventure in this big sandbox to play in.

There are two ways.people will talk about designing game worlds, be it sandbox or not and that is inside out or outside in. Both design approaches have merit, but for Disneyland they went Outside in, focusing on the theme park first then to the different lands then to the attractions in the lands and then even down to the specific minute to minute experience the park goes had.. Using this world to land to attraction to experience is comparable to looking at your game in a world to level to experience viewpoint. You build the map, then you populate it with encounters for the player to take part in then you build their minute by minute adventure as you lead them through it. Extra Credits did a good talk about sandbox design here and goes into some ideas of how to incorporate things.

When designing a sandbox, a good writer will try and bring in some foreshadowing giving ideas of some things that might be previously encountered. like the posters in Bioshock giving an idea of how the plasmids will power you up, but some of it can be done in simpler ways like the Half Life 1 Tram Ride showing off different bits of the area. This may seem harder to do in a roleplaying scenario, but you can put a little focus on various points like if you plan to have part of your story take place in or on a volcano you could make mention to a ritual being done where some animals or treasure are sacrificed to appease the gods or in re-enactment of some great battle taking place there. If you want a specific landmass to be important find a way to emphasis it, perhaps something as obvious as “Everything the light touches” moment from the Lion King or as subtle as a mention about having there be a patrol going out to the area and later in the game make mention they were not heard from.

Walt Disney did invent the idea of Weenies, which are called Weenies after the idea of leading a dog from point to point by holding out a hot dog wiener for them. In Disneyland the rides, the castle and many other things are these weenies, as they are points of reference drawing you to them and helping you find your bearings by them. Think of it like the cartography in Miasmata where you actually need to take triangulation to figure out location of landmarks and to complete your map. Makes the game seem like that much more of a grand adventure to me. Might be harder to do in a game, but you can give your players a description of it and if you really want to be evil, have them have to figure out where they are going if they have no map and get lost.

One big thing you’ll realize in Disneyland is that not everything needs to be an E-Ticket high attraction exhibit, sometimes you need a moment to break and rest. Using the idea of Interest Curves, as discussed here at Extra Ctedits, you see that by letting things build and fall  you let your audience relax after having things built high.or you won’t be giving them a proper feel for your work. In other words, give your players a little quiet time before throwing events at them. Now,feel free to have one thing be a major drama high time thing with a countdown timer as they try and solve something but then give them some time in and out of game to relax and get back to a baseline.

Be sure to reward your players with something at every encounter they take.It doesn’t have to be a statistical bonus, it could just be an event that furthers their understanding of the world like stumbling on a treasure and then a pirate demanding you give them back their treasure, or perhaps a stone carving of native artwork explaining some of the history. By putting specific key points that the player will encounter without being able to see that it is a plant is economic storytelling, you are putting something in place to tell a story and then another piece in a second area, such as running into a key character before a battle in a fortress and then after the battle meeting with them again and all it is is just placing these two encounters and not having to measure what happened to the character during the battle since the players never got to see it.

To see the sort of ideas in work, the film talks about the Indy queue for waiting for the event. There is lots of foreshadowing — snake imagery telling you what danger you’ll encounter later, which makes your mind wonder what the danger will be, creates anticipation. Anyone who watches horror will know that expectation enhances surprise as you are waiting for things to happen so you are on edge. Once inside the queue, all kinds of minigames, puzzles and storytelling to keep the players interested as they are waiting. The examples they use are hieroglyphs and coded messages, but you can do anything with it. These puzzles aren’t gating devices, they’re story elements. Also, since the idea is not to directly endanger the ride-goer, Disney has tons of implied threats, skulls, easter eggs and interactivity like yank-rope with a collapsing ceiling, great to show players possible danger and keep them on edge without directly challenging them.

Some idle points to help in designing areas in general based on the details given in this video. First, a good juxtaposition of interior and exterior spaces to keep things changing and giving players some differences. As well, narrow areas have danger, wide areas are for exploration. There are also some great game design tricks for getting players to choose certain areas and paths that you can use to help in your roleplaying, my favorite descriptions of them coming from Leverage and Youtube channels Extra Credits and Game Maker’s Toolkit.Some of these are visual tricks, sure, but you can come up with similar tricks for verbal storytelling.

Gamers of the World: Unite

A discussion I had recently was with someone had meandered into how they feeling like people were going to alienate them for their lack or knowledge of a game system. I can understand that feeling of being like you would be cast to the outside as I grew up as one of those outcasts in school, the kid who was too unfit to be a jock, too nerdy to be preppy while being too socially adjusted to be a stereotypical nerd, even wore second hand clothes well before the practice was acceptable. I just had my clique of friends I hung out with and was made fun off by the kids in my class. So I know all about alienation.

However, one place none of us should be alienated is at the gaming table. I know we all had experienced some sort of experience where we felt like the outsider, maybe not the same way as I have but there is always that view of being a little different, a little stranger than all the others. I don’t think we should have to feel that from the group of players of a game we enjoy. These days, RPGs are a lot more acceptable than they were in the eighties and nineties when I was growing up and interested in them. I think part of this is because of the advance of video games, like Baldur’s Gate, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Elder Scrolls, and so forth getting people interested in roleplaying games and having some explore the source material. Also it could be due to some of the famous people bringing the hobby into a much better light than it was a generation ago.
You will see Vin Diesel talking about his D&D character, even having it be part of the inspiration to the Witch Hunter movie and writing the foreward of the book 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons. We have Wil Wheaton having a channel on Youtube where he gets to play games weekly and introduce them to people (not to mention the weekly RPG broadcast he did, and others done on the same channel). I would have loved to sit at a table with Robin Williams,  if he put some of the zany energy of his standup into his characters. All walks of life including porn stars like Sasha Grey and basketball player Tim Duncan.


Teldore #2: Electric Stone Boogaloo  

So, it seems like the Goblin is now a member of our group fully. He had his mana clear removed after Boris felt he earned it in saving his life and he is showing his value… however I am wondering about exactly what the townspeople will think after all that has happened with Goblins there are bound to be some racial moments where he is judged by what he is rather than who.

I have been doing a lot of soul searching this night, attempting to prove my commitment to the Great Mother, more to myself than to the Mother I think. When we discovered the magician’s laboratory it felt good to be out of the sewers and then finding people after the skeletons…. it was a definite sign things were changing. I just wish I knew how much they would be changing.


Tell Me More about Teldore #1

This is from a Roll20 campaign, some in-character thoughts and observations. Basically a mental character journal for the events of this campaign and maybe some bluebook storytelling. GM, feel free to make use of anything.

So, I have been with this group for a while and we’ve done well, or so I thought. This morning’s fight shows I will need to run the group through the same drills that my combat teachers taught me as… well, they got their asses handed to them like soft fleshies tend to do. Reckless positioning, no use of cover, not even support maneuvers. Thank the Great Mother that we managed to come out of it alive, with her watching over her servant in a time of need.

Of course, Boris decided to keep one of the Goblins as a… pet? I seriously don’t know if that is a good idea, but it does two things. It keeps Boris busy and it keeps a Goblin out of trouble. I just will have to keep an eye open to make sure that the Goblin, according to Boris hereby known as Jeffrey, stays safe and well treated.

When returning back to town we investigated a map we found after our fight which brought us to the Blue Tower, a tower which the guards took over from a magician and apparently will hold more secrets than they know. We now have a goal, but to get inside without hurting anyone who doesn’t deserve it may be a problem.


The Name Game

I’ve talked about Fallen London before, but they recently brought back some content that I think is worth talking about as a new focus. Seeking the Name. “It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s one of the most interesting, disturbing quests you’ll ever regret taking on.” to quote Rock, Paper, Shotgun article here. I mean, the whole next paragraph is as follows:

Seeking The Name is the exact opposite of most RPG quests. You can argue it has an element of fighting for justice to it, but that’s not really the point. Really, from the point of view of your Fallen London character, it’s less a quest than it is a curse – a voracious hunger, an unstoppable drive that strips them of everything they have and promises nothing in return. One of the standard Fallen London slogans is “All will be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Seeking The Name is so far removed from that, the game itself regularly breaks character to tell you that you are making a mistake, that you should turn back, and that nothing awaits but pain, suffering and more pain. Pain like losing half your stats in a single click. Pain like throwing away your Destiny. Pain like sacrificing your hardest earned possessions just for a chance of progressing.

Normally, in Fallen London, you build up your character by doing storylines. Usually most are repeatable mini-quests, following iterations of a few choice forks like a choose your own adventure book. You do them, build up stats and resources and further yourself into stories deeper and deeper. This one is instead one that you will be broken on, as mentioned above. A lot of the in game backstory is discussed in places like this, a Fallen London tumblr discussion page and it is quite an interesting story, but I mostly like it for the idea of how it is giving the players literally enough rope to hang themselves and then the freedom to do it. Something that, as Rock Paper Shotgun says, you don’t see enough of in games. An actual ‘Hey, go do this thing that will literally make your game harder, because it’s different’.