Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I search for traps!

Yesterday, I got over a minor hurdle. Nothing life-changing but hey, this is a blog; trivial stuff like this is pretty much the name of the game (however much I have tried to avoid it, for the most part). So, what did I do? I GM-ed a one-shot RPG. For the (likely few, but you never know) confused members of the audience, no I did not destroy an American-made car with ex-Soviet antitank weaponry, or anything like that. People who know what I'm talking about just skip the rest of this paragraph to save time. GM = Game Master, a more generic term for the Dungeon Master of Dungeons and Dragons fame/infamy. Effectively the narrator and puppetmaster of all characters not directly controlled by the players, the GM is tasked with turning graph paper and polyhedral dice into interactive fiction. In this case, however, the game was a lot faster and looser than I have described thus far. This is where “one-shot” comes in; a one-shot Role Playing Game (RPG) is the tabletop gaming equivalent of a one-night stand. A one-shot RPG is spur-of-the-moment, it is not a bastion of great originality, and well, ok so you don't usually wake up in bed with a stranger when you play one-shot RPGs, but you get the idea: they're fast, fun, then over & done.

I had refrained from GM-ing a campaign in the past for the simple reason that I wasn't sure I would be any good at it. Pen and paper games are vastly open-ended compared to their computerized brethren, and the GM needs to be able to keep up with as many options as he or she is giving his or her players – nominally lots. The GM has to improvise dialogue, make up setting information if the players ask unanticipated questions (or make up everything if you're doing what we did and built a world as we went). This requires a skillset probably not all that different from improvisational theatre, and goodness knows I am not known for a strong acting aptitude! I lack the inclination to play characters, on stage or in life, and hence I see myself as having something of a limited dramatic range – a serious boon for a GM. Yesterday, though, I decided that I'd take the plunge and see what happened.

Turns out that fun happened. It wasn't perfect, but I was constrained by both a time limit, and by my choice of roleplaying system. A perennial favourite of ours for one-shot campaigns is Risus, a simple humour-focused game in which characters are built entirely of cliches. While simple to the point of elegance, Risus is in need of a more interesting action resolution system. I'm always sort of dissatisfied with the “roll dice to accomplish an action” model for RPGs, because you'll take your freshly-created badass into the game, and you'll miss. You'll fail to knock down the odd door, you'll fall down a flight of slippery stairs...sure you may be a wimpy level one, but who wants to go into a campaign with that kind of mindset about a character? No, you're a fucking monster badass space-ranger, no matter what the rulebook says! This is where I like the (also flawed) Wushu model, called the Principle of Narrative Truth (PoNT). What the players say happened happened just like they said. Of course, certain things are not allowed (players and the GM all have veto power in case a player gets out of line), but what the dice tell you is never “you fell on your ass lol”, but instead just how much closer to solving the conflict at hand based on your actions. So you can do epic flying leap-cuts to dice your foes, or make that ridiculously improbable death sta—I mean generic space battlestation trench run without fear of getting impaled on your own sword or proton torpedoes when you roll a 1. What CAN happen if you “fail” the roll are complications. Sure you chopped those demons to bits, but now the bits are all scurrying after you, each having formed into a miniature-scale demon of its own. Maybe that exhaust port was a red herring? Maybe that battlestation blows up, and you're face to face with an imperial battlefleet? But no matter what you roll, your character is still a proper badass. If and when I do run further one-shot campaigns, I believe I will likely employ the PoNT/ Veto system for narration, with a corresponding rewrite of the dice results table. If you're wondering why I wouldn't just go whole-hog and use Wushu, it's because the number of dice you roll under said rules is based on how much detail you describe in your actions, leading to gameplay slower than retarded glaciers. That being said, detail will be encouraged in any system using the PoNT, but mechanically rewarding excessive detail with invincibility...not so cool.

If you're wondering, the game we played involved a pair of rebels attempting to overthrow a pan-galactic hybrid of monarchy and anarchy using a stolen prototype stealth ship and an awful lot of advanced nanotechnology. Player characters included a sociopathic deposed nobleman, a psychopathic mad scientist, and later a wandering space minstrel (who entered too close to the end of the session/game to be leveraged for anything sufficiently awesome, but that's just another thing to improve upon next time).

The moral of the story is, sometimes you should just do stuff and you won't suck at it. Really!


Tragic Post-Script: Even though you're never supposed to continue a one-shot campaign, I now have all kinds of sweet ideas for where the narrative could have gone!

EDIT: There is another reason why I prefer Wushu's method to that of Risus which I forgot to cover in the original post. Determining the difficulty of an action where the dice separate success and failure feels too abstract to me. An easy action for one character could prove very difficult to another based on skillset, personality, etc. The issue is, those variables are supposed to be encoded in the characters themselves, leaving the poor GM to figure out an objective difficulty of an action, which is absolutely fine in a prepared campaign, but a little much when I have to keep the action moving and make up the world simultaneously. Rolling degrees of success streamlines the process, although I'm not certain we're out of the woods yet. The thing about Risus is that it's very likely someone will have a particular attribute which they can only roll one die. Primary attributes tend to be more like 4 dice. Since 5 is the target number in basic Risus for an easy action, you can see that one die isn't really all that useful. In the same way, no matter how cool an action the player concocts based on the little trait that could, it's not going to get them very far when they can only roll as high as 6 on a scale that goes up to about 30 (5 dice in an attribute is not generally given to starting heroes, but it will happen eventually). Perhaps one-die traits could be treated as drawbacks, with 2, or even 3 dice representing the proficiency of an average individual. 3-18 on a scale of 1-30 is about perfect for most actions, with the most common rolls being 10 and 11. Certainly, this system would allow for somewhat less variety in character proficiency, but the idea of a one-shot campaign is to have fun. Any game that can be sabotaged by a round of bad luck (I'm looking at you, Munchkin) is too much of a risk to justify the time investment when you're looking for a quick laugh and a silly narrative in which you stomp all kinds of intergalactic ass with your massive laser space boots.

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