Narrative Games in Dangerous Worlds

I realize that this could be a controversial topic.  It could stir up all sorts of gamer rage jargon.  Terms like sandbox, railroad, GM fiat.  Let me start off by saying this is a technique I use in very specific types of games.  It is not a constant at every game that I run.  Nor am I saying that this style of game is the only game type out there, or that it is the only way to run a successful game.   Got it?  Good.  Let’s talk about Plot Immunity.

Narrative Games in Dangerous Worlds

As the title of this post suggests, this technique is for a heavily story driven game in systems where one bad roll can see all the work that the players and GM put into the story destroyed.  The idea of Plot Immunity was an idea I have toyed around with behind the screen for years.  It started subtly.  I fudged rolls on behalf of the party, ignored monster’s critical hits on night when the rolls were in my favor.  But it became a formal idea during my Anima game.

This requires a brief explanation of how the Anima system works.  You roll percentile dice to attack and defend, adding in your skill percentage to your final roll.  However, if you roll a 01-03%, you have fumbled.  You roll again and subtract that roll from your skill, possibly giving you a negative final value.  If you roll a 90%+ you critical, and you roll again and add both rolls to your skill.  If that second roll is 91%+, you roll again. Each time the crit range decrease by one, but still the possibility exists for multiple critical rolls skyrocketing your final value.  The defense roll is subtracted from the attack roll, and the remainder converts to a % of your weapon damage.  Roll high enough to attack and you could very easily see upwards of 500% damage.  See where I am going with this?

It was not Dungeons and Dragons, where a critical does double damage.  This was a system where you could easily QUINTUPLE your damage in a single hit.  And if your enemy fumbled, that damage could increase even more.  This meant, mechanically, any PC was one bad roll from dying.  ‘Realistic’? Possibly.  Fun…. Not so much.  And with the story of the game being very player focused and narrative, I was not happy with this possibility.

Immunity

With this in mind, at the start of the game, I introduced a formalized Plot Immunity.  Simplified, it stated that unless the player went out of his way to do something death worthy, ie: leaping into a volcano, the PC could not die over the course of a standard session.  They could be rendered unconscious, and there would be in game consequences, but death would not be one of them.  It freed the players from the worry of the system and allowed them to focus on having fun with their characters, plots, and trying things they might not have attempted for fear of mechanical retribution.

This was balanced with specific encounters, usually revolving around the main villains of the game, where I revoked Plot Immunity.  Those scenes suddenly leapt up in intensity.  Everyone realized that something real was at stake.  It worked out well, abet with a little bit of refining needed as the game progressed.

Refined Definition

After the Anima Game, which you can read about here if you are interested, Plot Immunity went on the shelf.  After that I ran a number of games where it was not as appropriate.  A sandbox style exploration game in Adventurer, Conqueror, King.  A Legend of the Five Rings game, where death is always a single sword strike away.  A Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition game, which has built in Plot Immunity, because you have to TRY to kill the characters.  But this week we started a new game, using the Dungeons and Dragons Next rules set.  The co-DM and I talked about what we had planned and agreed that Plot Immunity was definitely applicable to this game.  But we still wanted a Next specific version of Immunity, so here is what we came up with.

If a character is reduced to 0 HP, they will begin to make death saves as normal.  If they would die for any reason, they instead suffer a campaign loss.  This could be a loss of limb, resources, or even freedom.  We told the group that it might even mean they have been captured and have to play the PC’s opponents during the rescue encounter.  Everyone at the table was on board, and realized that in inclusion of Plot Immunity also means there will be times where it will be revoked.

Keys to Use

Plot Immunity is a powerful narrative tool that enables both the GM and the players to play without a mechanical Doom of Damocles. But like all tools, it has a proper time and place for its use.  Here is some advice on how to use this mechanic.

Narrative PlayPlot Immunity works best when the players and the GM are focused on a narrative play style.  Notice I say players & GM.  You need to have player input and buy in for Plot Immunity to shine, and it works best when the players are driving the story.  Otherwise you risk running into some of negative aspects of railroading.  Also, this technique doesn’t work as well in a traditional sandbox style game.  That style’s focus on the perils of exploration, in my mind, necessitates the need for sudden death.

Requirements – If you are thinking about using this technique, refer to the title of the post, and see if it applies to your situation.  Again, this technique works best when the mechanics of the game system would work against the story.  The other important question to ask at this point is ‘Does this system make sense to use for this game.’  If you can switch to a system that better fits your play style, consider that.  But if you are dead set on playing a narrative focused game in, say, Anima, I would recommend using this technique.

Common Sense ­– This might be the most important piece of advice concerning Plot Immunity.  I saw Plot Immunity ruin a game.  Completely and utterly destroyed a friend’s game.  The GM was so focused on the story, that he ignored absurd situations that should have killed his PC’s.  Like starting a fight outnumbered 250:1.  The players soon stopped taking the game seriously and the GM stopped running the game in frustration, after a session where one PC rode a ballista bolt into the front line of an attacking army… naked.   So make it clear to you players that while they are immune to some of mechanical aspects that might kill their characters, they are not immune to their own stupidity.

As with all GMing techniques and house rules, communicate with your players.  If you decide to use Plot Immunity, let them know what it means to you, and how you plan to mechanically enforce it.  I did not do this well in the Anima game, and a player lost a character due to the fact that I had not figured out how to implement Immunity.  I hope that this helps you avoid the scars I earned putting this tool into play.

 

Monday’s post will be one part of the prologue from my new Ta’nar novel.  I am breaking it up into 6 posts, each part being released for the next month and a half.

Intrigue Game Aid

I love intrigue based games.  By that I mean games filled with secret plots and counter plots.  Whether the shadow games of nobles or a group of gutter rats facing off against their rivals for control of the streets, this type of game provides a level of interaction from my players that I love.  Intrigue games can be difficult to run well.  I, personally, tend to run this type of game very aggressively, with intelligent NPC’s matching wits with the best my players have to offer.  I also allow these types of games to include a level of player verses player machinations.  Few gaming moments have been more statisyfing for me as a GM than one night, when notes were flying back and forth over the table, one of my players stood up and burned hers in a bowel.  That was her level of commitment to the game shining through.  That movement is still talked about years later

But, this type of game requires a lot of your players.  For the game to run well, your players have to be proactive.  They have to have a heavy buy-in to the plot, a high level of initiative to drive game play, and they have to remain focused.  Lose anyone of one of these three things and the game can flounder as your players sit around waiting for the plot to come to them.  And that leads to boring sessions that can kill an intrigue game.

So I came up with a number of player aids to help my players during this type of game.  As I am starting up my DnD Next game this week, and there will be a heavy amount of court intrigue, I started prepping these aids and thought I would share one of them.

The NPC Sheet.

This is not a super-secret or arcane GMing trick, but one so simple I am mind boggled it took so long for me to come up with.  It is simply a sheet of paper with the major NPCs of the game on it.  The information it provides is very basic: name, sex, race, and one piece of campaign info (usually their position in the world at the game start).  It is then followed by space to take notes.  That is it.  So simple and yet it has been one of the biggest boons to my table.  This is for a number of reasons. 

First, it provides player and game focus.  Every time I mention a name on that sheet, everyone pays attention.  My player’s reasoning is that, if this person was important enough to be on that sheet, something important is about to go down.   

Secondly, it provides a page of hooks for the player to pull on.  The players in this type of game need to push the plot forward, much more so than a dungeon crawl adventure.  If they get mired in trying to figure out what to do next or need to figure out who is their next suspect in an investigation is: they can jump to the NPC sheet.

Finally, it encourages them to take notes.  The little space for each NPC is not intimidating and provides a space to jot down little things that will be useful later.  As each player tends to focus on slightly different aspects of the NPCs and their scenes, if they use the sheet, it paints a more complete picture.  Also, I leave the space small, no more than a couple of lines, on purpose.  This is to ensure that the players don’t become so focused on notes that they lose the thread of the game.

 

Combined all of these benefits together and the NPC sheet shines.  The players are focused on the scenes with these NPCs and are taking more focused notes.  They all have a common basis for sharing information and this provides common ground for planning, which enables the hooks to guide them even more. 

The NPC sheet has worked out great for me.  I have used it in highly political games, and in murder mysteries to great effect.  Have you used anything like this?  Let me know.

Races of Ta’nar – The Dhwarvs

The second race of Ta’nar article looks as Dwarves in my world.  Stats for these culturally regressed people are identical to those presented in the books.  

 

Dhwarvs – The Fallen Race

The Dwarves were once a great people.  They ascended from the earth in the Second Age pursuing the Var migrations, so intense was their hatred of their ancient foes.  The Dwarves were engineers, the Architects of the Third Age.  It was they who partnered with the Jucat Empire to create the techno-magical marvels of that time.  The Dwarves are no more.  Their descendants, the Dhwarvs can be found occupying their forbearer’s ancient halls.  But they have regressed and fallen into barbarism.  It is believed that this is due to some fallout from the disaster that heralded the last days of the Third Age, but the true cause is unknown.  They are now a tribal society, filled with degenerate ravers.  They have fallen far from the heights their race once knew. 

 

Physical Description: Rugged, burly and squat, the Dhwarvs look very much like their ancestors.  The tallest of dhwarvs approach five feet tall, but never seem to break it, and they stand much wider proportionally than a human.  Both genders of the Dhwarvs grow their hair out, and braid fetishes and trophies into the hair of their scalps and beards.  All of the clans engage in ritual scarring and tattooing of their bodies, commemorating important events and relationships into the tapestry of their skin.  This practice is brought to its apex in the fearsome Rune Born warriors, whose tattoos are magically invested wards.

 

Society:   In many ways the Dhwarven culture is a parasite.  It lingers in and on the husk of its once grand civilization.  The Dhwarvs occupy holds and fasts in nearly all the mountain ranges on Ta’nar.  These cities are testaments to a race that has since passed into memory.  The Dhwarvs that inhabit these wondrous cities don’t have the ability to maintain, let alone create, the splendor that surrounds them.  They still live much as their ancestors did, organized in clan-holds.  But they follow the old ways with a sedimentary resolve, that showcases the stagnation of their culture.  Dhwarvs abide in a tight knit community with the other families in their hold.  Feuds, alliances and grudges that stretch back thousands of human generations form the fabric of a hold.  Indeed it forms a sad tapestry for the whole of the Dhwarven race.  

 

Relations: The Dhwarvs are as widely spread as the human race, and relations between the two races has always been positive.  Although the Dhwarvs have lost much of what they once were, the records of their ancestor’s accords with Men have survived and are honored.  As has their intense hatred of the Var, and to a lesser extend the Varthen.  Both the Var and Dhwarven racial histories are filled with bloodshed and war against one another.  During the Great Dark Wars of Ta’nar, the Var and Dhwarvs have always faced off against each other on the field of battle. While they respect the craftsmanship of the Elves, Dhwarvs find them aloof and arrogant.  The Dhwarvs have no historical enmity or alliance with the Pantherans or the Wolfan, as their cultures are relatively new to the world.  As they both have a love of the earth and stone, the Jathal Nephilim and the Dwharvs have always been allies, despite their differences in stature.

 

Religion: The Dhwarven gods still watch over their race, but they are as stagnate as their people.  They are the same gods from the Third Age when the Dhwarven culture was in ascendance.  The last of the Great Makers, preserved the gods of the Dwarves in crystal pillars deep within their mountain fastness, each clan’s god bound forever in their hold.  Trapped in crystal, trapped in stasis, what they think of their beloved race is unknown.  They interact with their children in a most unique way. The priests of the Dhwarven gods are chosen for their ability to allow their crystallize gods to come and “ride” their bodies.  In times of peace, these vessels guide the holds… in times of war, the Dhwarv’s gods stride bodily  across the fields of battle, venting a seemingly endless rage upon their enemies.

 

Adventurers: Whether to reclaim what is lost or to forge a new destiny, there are many reasons for a Dhwarv to leave the hold and adventure in Ta’nar.  Most seek battle or a chance for wealth and greatness.  A few have the self-awareness to realize what has happened to their race, and seek to somehow rectify it.

 

Pathfinder Stats:

Per Pathfinder Main – Dwarf

 

Next Stats:

Per Mountain Dwarf

 

Races of Ta’nar – The Auxen

In the first of a series of articles showcasing the race of Ta’nar, here is the very rough first draft for the Auxen.  I have presented the Pathfinder and Next stats that I have/am using for this round of playtesting.  Any thoughts or comments?

Auxen – Shepard’s of the Sparks.

Inhabiting the desert steppes throughout the world, including the southern plains of Sentali, the Auxen are a study in contrasts.  Physically massive and imposing, they possess a deeply spiritual connection to the world of Ta’Nar, and the sparks that inhabit it.  While their tent cities travel places often forsaken by the ‘civilized races’, the Circle of Elders send Auxen warriors out to move participate in the world’s conflicts for their own mysterious purposes.  In a time where empires are rising and wars are being fought across the surface of the known world, the Auxen have forged a reputation as some of the fiercest and honorable mercenaries Ta’an has ever seen.

Physical Description: Standing close to 8′ tall, and weighing on average 500 lbs, Auxen are an imposing race.  The Auxen are covered in soft fur that vary in shades of brown, black and grey.  Each Auxen’s fur possesses its own unique shading, blending and spotting.  The shamans of the tribes believe that these markings foretell a person’s life events and are used in personal divinations.  Auxen also possess ram-like heads which boast impressive sets of curling horns, while their legs end in cloven hooves. Fetish’s, and other spirit charms are typically braided into their hair and fur.

Society:   The Auxen have a deep abiding respect for the lands they call home and greatly treasure all that surrounds them. They give thanks to the wild Aurochs of the plains that surrender their lives so they may eat its meat and fashion armor from their hides. They revere the deer and elk of the mountains that provide food and clothing for their children. And they humbly take the bounties of the land that their homes offer up to them in the way of berries and wild fruit. Though the Auxen do not maintain fields or herds of their own they have a great understanding for the ecosystem in which they live and endeavor to strike a harmonious balance with the nature that surrounds them. They help thin the herds of deer, elk, and aurochs so they do not become too great a strain on their surroundings and thus throw the entire area into an unbalance that would ultimately leads to destruction. Their nomadic tendencies arise from the need to move where the food is in any given time or season. Some postulate that the Auxen keep themselves tied to this nomadic lifestyle, purposely never putting down roots for some arcane purpose.

Relations:  Most of the human civilizations of Ta’Nar look down on at the Auxen as primitive due to their shamanistic beliefs and nomadic lifestyle.  This is especially true of the residents of Cestario, who view the worship of the nascent sparks as an infantile fascination at best.  Few realize that the Auxen choose their lifestyle, and this discrepancy is something that gives the Auxen the advantage in various negotiations and contracts they engage in.  The elves and half-elves get along well with the Auxen, sharing a respect bred out of past struggles against darkness in the wastes of Aegandos.  The Auxen and the Jathal also enjoy warm alliances when they meet, both being deeply spiritual, if isolationist, races.  The only races that truly can be said to be antagonistic towards the Auxen are the Bane’tal and the Var.  As both races bear Thoan’s mark of corruption on soul and body, they very rarely can find common ground with the Shepard’s of the Sparks.

Religion: The Auxen are often called the Shepard’s of the Sparks.  This is no mere appellation.  They do not worship any of the new gods that rest in the golden glow of Cestario.  Rather, they understand the cycle of divinity and revere the old gods that originally arose from the divine sparks of nature.  The Auxen tend to and worship these inchoate divinities, guiding and communing with them till they evolve into their more mature states.  This is not to say that their shamans are powerless when compared with a priest of a new god.  Far from it, for the sparks of nature outnumber the gods of the Thousand Streams, and are quick to rise to defend their chosen.

Adventurers: While there are many reasons an Auxen would choose the life of an adventurer, two far outstrip the rest.  The first is signing the Sellsword Accords.  These Auxen sign on with mercenary and adventuring parties to see the world and act as their people’s eyes and ear in Ta’Nar.  The other reason is the call of the sparks.  Not limited to shaman’s, some Auxen hear the whispers of the spirits and are called to leave their people for reasons eldritch and purposeful.  Why these Auxen are chosen and for what purpose is unknown to all but the Called, but they walk the spirits and that is enough for them.

 

Pathfinder Stats:

+4 Strength, +2 Wisdom, -4 Dexterity: Auxen are large and wise, but clumsy compared to other races

Large:  Large creatures gain a +2 size bonus to Strength and a –2 size penalty to Dexterity (already included). Large races take a –1 size penalty to their AC, a –1 size penalty on attack rolls, a +1 bonus on combat maneuver checks and to their CMD, and a –4 size penalty on Stealth checks. A Large creature takes up a space that is 10 feet by 10 feet and has a reach of 5 feet.

Dreamspeaker: Auxen gain a +1 bonus to the saving throw DCs of spells of the divination school and spells that produce sleep effects that they cast. In addition, members of this race with a Charisma score of 15 or higher may use dream once per day as a spell-like ability (caster level is equal to the user’s character level).

Gate Crasher: Auxen gain a +2 racial bonus on Strength checks to break objects and a +2 racial bonus on combat maneuver checks to sunder.

Head-butt: Auxen may attack opens with their horns.  This is a primary attack that does 1D8 damage

Lucky: The spirits constantly watch out for their Shepard’s, all Auxen receive +1 to all saving throws.

Powerful Charge: When charging, an Auxen’s head-butt attack does 2d8+1-1/2 times its Strength modifier

Sociable: Auxen attempting to change a creature’s attitude with a Diplomacy check and fail by 5 or more, can try to influence the creature a second time even if 24 hours have not passed.

Languages: Auxen begin play speaking Common and Terran.  Auxen with high intelligence scores can choose from the following: Abyssal, Celestial, Dwharven, Elven, Infernal, Leonon, and Wolfen.

 

Next Stats:

+1 Str & +1 Wis

Size: Medium – See Ram-like Physique

Speed: 35′

Ram-like Physique

  • Advantage on charge attacks.
  • Considered Large for Combat Actions
  • Ram Horns – D6 + Str

Spirit Sensitive – Advantage on Wisdom [Perception] & Intelligence [Search] Rolls when dealing with spirits and elementals.

Southern Sentali

 

 

This is the region of my world where our DnD Next game will be taking place.  Sentali is a smaller continent in my world of Ta’nar, but up until now, it is where most of the action has taken place.  The playtests have all be on the northern half of this continent, so this game will be a great opportunity to introduce a number of my players to a new part of the world.

I need to touch up the last little bits of the map.  Cities need naming, the mountains do as well.  A couple of the more prominent ruins needs labeling, but for my first draft I am very happy with how it turned out.

southern sentali - Poster

Perspective

“The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.” ― Douglas AdamsThe Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time

Welcome back.  For those of you who have been anxiously holding your breath waiting for me to update this blog… I hope you woke up from the time you spent passed out with pleasant dreams.  Lots of non-gaming stuff going on my life that keep demanding more time.  But enough of excuses, let’s talk about perspective!

Breaking Out:

As Douglas Adams mentioned, it is pretty easy to be unaware of how skewed your perspective may be.  Like a ranger that fails a tracking roll, subtle shifts in your focus can lead you far from where you thought you would be. Humans can adapt to almost anything, and what has become your normal state of being (in gaming as well as life) maybe completely out of whack. You can require a sharp contrast to pull your perspective back into alignment.  For example:

The Numenera game I was running has come to a close.  It was not the game’s fault.  It ran smooth for the nine people that I was running it for.  The world was interesting and the system was a lot of fun, and very easy to GM.  But over the last couple of months, I have noticed from behind the screen that the group was starting to crack.  Focus was slipping on a routine basis, both mechanically and socially.  Personality conflicts were spiking, and while I would leave the table with a sense of loving Numenera, there was always some sort of sour note that tainted my thoughts.  I talked with other game members about issues they were having with the story, the pacing, and the distractions.  It got so bad that more than one of my players was looking to leave.  I was concerned but didn’t know how to fix it.  I looked to mechanics to step up the pacing and force the group to cut down on distractions.  I tried to tighten up the story.  All of these worked to some extent or another, but they were Band-Aids on a ruptured artery.

And then something strange happened.  My group got offered a playtest spot in a soon to be published adventure.  We had to get through our section (which I will talk more about when I am able to) in about two weeks, so we paused Numenera and dove right in.  And the first session went smoothly.  Everyone was engaged and had a blast.  They learned the mechanics quickly.  It was bizarre.  The second session was even better.  I was trying to figure out how this game, a d20 based game was solved so many of the issues we were having when it was a far more complicated game.  And then it hit me.  The first session only had seven people, as two of our players were snowed in.  The second had even less.  I had run a five player game for the first time since the too short stint with Mage.

I had been running 7+ people in games since October of 2012, longer than that if you count the store events where we had 10+ players.  That group size had become my mental model, even though my optimum group size is 4.  When the playtest changed my perspective, I was able to see that the problems at my table were not system based, but size based.  Every one that I had fretted over, or that had been brought to my attention could be traced back to group size.  The change in perspective allowed me to accurate look at the issues in my group and make steps to change them.

The Long Con:

But perspective also relates to the games you are playing, not just the group.  The game, either with setting or mechanics, imparts the designer’s perspective to the game.  This has been clearly evident in the Burning Wheel game.  Burning Wheel establishes a radically different perspective on gaming then more classic RPG’s.  In most traditional, you receive experience in short bursts and increase in power in a similar manner.  But it is very common to level in a very short span of in-game time.  But Burning Wheel’s perspective on time, both in and out of the game, is radically different.  It is focused on, and indeed shines brightest in, very long term games.  Healing can take weeks or even months of game play to fully recover.  The same goes for practicing your skills, which could take in-game months or years to earn required tests.  One of my players and I were discussing this this morning, which lead to this post.  It is not bad, just different and requires a cognitive shift in perspective by both the players and myself.

Lessons Learned:

What did all this talk of perception mean for me at the table?  Well first of all, good perspective requires reflection to help keep it healthy.  The ability to step back from a situation, sometimes in the form of a literal break from the routine, allows you to analyze where you are and where you want to be.  The fallout from this self-reflection can be very beneficial.

For me, it means my Tuesday game is getting smaller.  We discussed all of the issues and options and settled on playing DnD Next.  Another GM in the group and I are plotting out a game where, while the group is still one group as a whole, they split up on a monthly basis into groups of 4 to accomplish short term goals.  Two groups in one game, with the freedom to switch between groups.  It should accomplish the goals of having smaller groups, but still allowing everyone to interact with the whole of the group.  Time will tell on both counts, but I will be blogging our progress.

Secondly, keep in mind the game’s perspectives when you start.  Whether it’s the builtoin perceptions of time, morality, or focus, working with those perspectives will enable you and your players to get the most out of your time around the table.   As for the Burning Wheel game, the game is still too new (both in terms of story and mechanics) for me to analyze the time structure.  But in realizing that I need to keep the game’s perspective in mind, there are a couple of things I can do.  I need to not skip over the length of time associated with travel and healing. I need to point my players to the practice rules and say “how are you spending this time?”  The game also needs planned downtime.  Resource cycles, healing and training all need breaks from the action to accomplish.  While this is not my normal style, I tend to leap from adventure to adventure, I feel like I have a good handle on this cycle and how to put down time into the adventure to allow this system to hit its stride.  I think I will have a good idea on how I and my players are handling the long term perspective in three to six months.

In the pipeline:

I got some great advice on blogging and how to run one.  I am going to start prepping articles and ideas in advance to create a backlog of posts so I won’t be scrambling to get them out on time.  I have blog post in the works for tips and tricks for dealing with larger groups that I hope will be helpful.  Numenera Bestiary and Glimmer reviews and previews of the novel and world I am working on are all in the works.  This includes updates on the Next game set in my world and the maps and mechanics that I will be creating for it.  As one final update, I will be posting a regional map I am working on for the Next game later today.