• Random Movie Quote

    Griffin Mill: I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.

    — The Player (1992)

Encourage Awesome – Death is for Red Shirts

I discovered an important concept in storytelling at a young age. My parents allowed me to stay up to watch the original Star Trek series during its first run on NBC in 1966. In many of the episodes, the audience would be shown how a deadly monster or weapon worked. They would use it on an extra that commonly wore a red shirt. The poor victim would then have all their salt sucked out of their bodies, be instantly disintegrated, or turned into a cube. This would show everyone what sort of trouble the main characters were in and the consequences for failure.

However, the main characters never managed to die or be permanently harmed by these weekly dangers. Were they able to avoid death by being incredibly badass? Not really, even though they were badass. It was because those characters were the stars of the show. Killing Kirk, Spock, or McCoy would have seriously altered the story and may have ended the series.

So, why is the death of player characters such a big part of traditional roleplaying games? In the original Star Trek RPG by FASA, a phaser set to Disintegrate could take out a character in one shot. That’s it. You’re gone. There isn’t even a body to mourn over. The reason for this is that traditional roleplaying games are an outgrowth of war games. The design goal was to simulate the “reality” of combat as closely as possible. That includes the likelihood of death for even the main characters.

No one likes having their character killed. That is the reason why resurrections are so common in fantasy games and why the Gamemaster will often fudge a die roll in order to save a character. It is also why the players will often have the characters act in an unheroic manner. They make certain the characters always make the safest possible choices in order to make sure they survive. In other words… Not Awesome.

Why have a rule in a game that is going to keep the players from doing cool things for fear of death? Design can fix this by taking a step away from reality and towards good storytelling. Main characters can only die when it has significance in the story. Spock willing exposes himself to radiation poisoning in order to save the Enterprise. McCoy sacrifices himself in order to save Kirk and Spock from a bizarre alien experiment. Kirk loses his life in a battle with Spock.

Yes, they all recovered from these deaths, but the point was to create drama and a good story. The only ones that had permanent deaths were the Red Shirts. Death should only be for the minor characters. Heroes should not fear death.


Encourage Awesome- Player Characters are the Stars

Middle Earth is the undisputed birthplace of fantasy roleplaying games. Dungeons & Dragons borrows heavily from that famous fictional world. However, the design of D&D and it’s brethren also picked up another feature from the Lord of the Rings. Let’s call it “Tolkien Syndrome.”

J.R.R. Tolkien created a rich fantasy environment with a deep history. However, Tolkien was primarily interested in writing a fictional history of Middle Earth instead of a story about its inhabitants. Thus, his emphasis was primarily on the events and setting. The characters do not drive the story so much as they are driven by it. You can actually see a reflection of this mindset in Tolkien’s art. There are plenty of landscapes, designs, and maps. However, there are no people. The closest he came was a pair of trolls in an illustration for the Hobbit.

You could say that Tolkien Syndrome is a necessary component of traditional roleplaying games. Since they are an outgrowth of war games, there is a heavy emphasis on concrete elements such as armor and weapons. You create a map, villains, combat strategy and a basic plot. Then you drop in your heroes and stir.

That’s right. The heroes come in last. It doesn’t matter who they are. They could be anyone. So, what can game design do to make the player characters more interesting than their surroundings?

Flaws are Fun

Most players prefer to have their heroes without any flaws or relationships that could get in the way of an adventure. In other words… boring. The mindset is understandable, since traditional roleplaying games puts the gamemaster in an adversarial role, and you don’t want to give the GM anything that he can use against you.

In fiction, flawless heroes evoke boredom. In The Lord of the Rings books, Aragorn is sure of his destiny to become the next king. His romantic relationship with Arwen is an afterthought. He was much more interesting earlier in the story as the “looks foul but feels fair” Strider. The movie version has doubts about his destiny. He’s not sure he wants the crown, and fears he may fall to the influence of the One Ring as his ancestor Isildur did. The relationship with Arwen comes into the foreground of his story. He becomes fascinating as a result of these changes.

There are games like the Hero System and GURPS that allow you to build flaws into your characters, but the only thing that makes them attractive is that they provide bonuses during their creation. After that, they become a tactical disadvantage that the players would prefer the GM forget about.

Instead, Flaws should reward the player characters for bringing them into the story. For example, the Fate system gives the players Fate Points for whenever an Aspect causes a problem for a character. Does your Dwarven character absolutely hate orcs with a passion? Let him jump out of hiding before your party is able to spring a trap on a war band of them, and that character gets a reward for doing so.

Adventure Structure

Tolkien loved maps. Traditional roleplaying games also rely heavily on maps to determine where things are and how long it would take to travel from point A to point B. While there is nothing wrong with maps in themselves, it can lead to over reliance on where things are.

Early roleplaying games usually took place in a deep dark dungeon filled with monsters and treasure. A room would have a monster or trap in it, you then defeated the obstacle and took the treasure it was guarding. It was simple and easy to keep track of things. However, as the hobby expanded into other environments, this approach continued. In extreme cases, entire cities have been meticulously mapped complete with the statistics of the building’s inhabitants. Very often, the gamemaster may want the players to head in a certain direction and the players decide to go somewhere else. This often leads to the GM railroading the characters. Tolkien Syndrome takes hold and the focus of the game is no longer on the heroes, but their environment instead.

The design can provide a solution by moving away from a location-based adventure structure and establishing an event-based structure. Outline the adventure as though it is a story made for the characters. Put the events in the order that you think would make the best story. Then prepare to change that story around as it happens. Are the players supposed to get an important clue from a non-player character at a local inn, but they avoid the place? Move the encounter to where the players have decided to go, or give the important bit of information to another character.

Share the Power

You spend weeks or months to invent a pristine little jewel of a world. It is the perfect world you have always dreamed about, filled with interesting characters, monsters, and ancient artifacts with histories going back thousands of years.

Then you introduce your players to the world. They immediately try to bring down the Evil Baron, but he is your favorite villain. You want him to be a thorn in their sides for years to come. So you protect him from the players. No matter how well they plan or hard they fight, you will not allow him removed from the story.

Like any creator, a gamemaster has is a strong desire to protect his babies. It’s only natural, since so much work has gone into them. However, this can interfere with a good story and take the focus away from the player’s characters.

In this case, game design can help by providing at least some of the Gamemaster’s power to the players. This means giving up control of the story to others. However, it can also yield greater rewards. Instead of placing the entire burden of the story on the gamemaster and the players simply reacting to what happens, the burden becomes shared. It stops being My Story and becomes Our Story. This helps the players become emotionally invested in the world since they are helping to build it as the story progresses.

A prime example of sharing the power is the game Universalis. In it, there is no designated Gamemaster. All the players have equal GM powers, and build the world and story by spending coins during play. The number of coins you have determines how much power you have at any time during the game and how clever a storyteller you are could greatly affect how many dice you are able to roll.

It would be possible to build a system by which there is a gamemaster, and the players could be given points that would allow them to act as co-creators. Do the characters have a contact in the town they are traveling to? One of them could spend a point to create an old friend there that would be happy to put the party up for a night or two. It gives the character some history and a place in this world, as well as someplace to crash for the night.

That Evil Baron that you’ve been having to protect while using traditional roleplaying methods? In a traditional RPG, he is merely another target to kill. By sharing the power, players could do something like designate him as an Arch Enemy. They get rewards every time he comes into a story. They then don’t want him to die, since the flow of rewards stops. If they manage to kill him, then they would need to create a new Arch Enemy.

The players will do greater things with the greater power. They will have their opportunity to step into a story that is about them, and be awesome.


Encourage Awesome- Introduction

It was the toughest battle we had ever fought in our One Ring campaign. We were fighting a tendrilled horror that had survived from the previous Age, and it was slowly wearing us down. Things looked dire.

Jonathan Worent, one of the new people to our group and a fervent player of Pathfinder, posed a question to the gamemaster. He wanted to know if there was any advantage to shooting arrows at the creature from behind the cover of some bushes. One of the other players, Seth Ben-Ezra, gave Jonathan this immortal advice, “Don’t worry about tactics. Concentrate on being Awesome.”

It struck a cord in me that will last the rest of my life.

Who doesn’t want to be awesome? Roleplaying games give you a prime opportunity to use your storytelling skills to inspire awe in your fellow players. You want your character to do cool stuff? They want to see your character do that cool stuff. In turn, they would like to show off their cool stuff too.

The overall rules of a game can help or hinder this goal. Most traditional roleplaying games tend to hinder since they simulate fiction as though it form of reality. This is due to the fact that roleplaying games are an outgrowth of war games. The emphasis is centered on combat and tactics. This often leads to cautious behavior that makes sense in real life, but curtails the action that makes books and movies so much fun.

In the upcoming posts, I will cover some techniques that can encourage awesome behavior in a roleplaying game:

  • Player Characters are the Stars
  • Death is for Red Shirts
  • Frontload Awesome
  • Combat is Not the Only Conflict
  • The Answer is Always “Yes” (Except When It Isn’t)