Hamsterprophecy: Prevision

It\’s All About Pen, Paper and People.

Playing Critically

Posted by Nathan P. on March 24, 2006

I’ve been thinking a bit about something that Luke said at Vericon.

(From my notes) Luke: Focused on one game, Burning Wheel. His advice, take a game you enjoy, and destroy and obliterate and burn out everything you don't like about it. It'll become unrecognizable, then you add in stuff that makes you happy.

So the last couple long-form games I’ve run have been Adventure! and Aberrant, two of the Aeonverse games from White Wolf. I understand that there was a d20 version of Aberrant released, but I fie upon that and stick to the modded storyteller system used in the original games.

I’ve noticed that, even though I have tried to play by the rules, there are definitly areas of the game which I just can’t make myself engage with because they bore me. Specifically, the whole “NPCs have the same stats as PCs and you must track them” thing. If I ever have the urge to write a Storyteller-esque game (which Imp kind of will end up being, maybe-sorta), thats what I’m going to fucking burn out. It makes me sad, and sometimes angry. Which is lame. In play I scoot around it by just making up stats off the top of my head that are directly applicable. “Well, you’re using your Dominate power on this baseline guard….I guess he has, like, 5 Willpower. Sounds good.” Straight up No Myth GMing on my part. [EDIT: Looks like I’m not the only one.]

Which sucks, because it throws a big part of the mechanical structure of the game, the balancing between Powers and Taint, out the window. If I want a heavily Tainted adversity, I’ll just make it up, without going into the guts and figuring out what mechanical reason he has to be Tainted. At our last session, I used a power to inflict two different kinds of damage over the course of an encounter, and one of the players (who knows the rules way better than I do) was all “Well, technically, it does one OR the other, which you pick when you take the power.” And I was all “Well, he has the power twice!” Lame on my part.

I feel like the GM shouldn’t have to keep track of more than any other player in terms of resources to affect the fictional material. It’s always been something that I tiptoe around with traditional games, with greater (2nd ed D&D) and lesser (Storyteller) degrees of success. It’s another “huh, I do that in all the games I design” thing that I kind of just noticed, like how I deal with character death.

What do I mean by “the GM shouldn’t have to keep track of more than any other player in terms of resources to affect the fictional material”? Well, take Storyteller (or D&D, for that matter). The players all have a character sheet, which is a list of the resources they have to effect the fictional material of the game, in the form of traits and pools and powers and whatnot. Now, it is expected that the GM should have the same sheet for the principle antagonists, and at least an abbreviated stat block for lesser adversaries, along with knowledge about difficulty levels and what kind of mechanics to apply to which challenging situations. Assume a group of 3 players. That will probably give you at least 2 or 3 principle antagonists at any given time, plus mooks, plus all the environmental challenges they’ll run into. That’s a lot of tracking for the GM to do, and frankly, at this point in my gaming career doing that much paperwork is BORING.

Now look at Carry. Everyone has a pool of dice. The GM has no guidelines to how he uses his, while the players have their Approach and Profile to deal with. This is a design decision that I made, to not have the GM have to choose an Approach. Why should he? He should use his judgement to provide an appropriate level of adversity, depending on his resources, the other players resources, and the overall tone and direction of the game and the specific situation at hand. In practice, I enjoy this much more, because I don’t feel like I’m responsible for maintaining some kind of platonic “well, if you ever WERE to engage Dr. Mephisto on the topic of windsurfing, his Watersports 4 would totally kick your ass” ideal.

So, my mythical Storyteller heartbreaker would give the GM a pool of dice depending on how badass or important the adversity is, and he can roll out of that pool of the dice for whatever he wants in response to the characters actions. Maybe he would choose two or three key traits that give a bonus dice (like, Kicks Magnetic Ass would give him an extra dice for bringing the characters magnetic mastery into the gamespace, or something). Or maybe each NPC has an “Effectiveness” stat, plus the menu of powers, and anything they do that doesn’t have to do with a power, the GM just rolls their effectiveness.

Y’know. Something that would make me happy.

3 Responses to “Playing Critically”

  1. On a parallel note, I don’t think I will ever create a game that has a GM and doesn’t have a GM Sheet much like the player character sheet. After running Dogs off of one 8.5×11 sheet of paper, I am never going back again.

    On the other hand, if you have a GM, chances are that he is keeping track of more details than the players are — as long as you are modeling NPCs in the same way as you model PCs. That’s not a problem if you’re going after a narrativist agenda; it works for some gamist agendas; and it doesn’t really work for any simulationist agenda. Basically as long as you are comfortable seeing PCs and NPCs as fundamentally different things (protagonists and antagonists, the challenged and the challengers, etc) this approach works. However, if your approach to the game recognizes PCs as the equals or equivalents of NPCs, and the GM controls multiple NPCs, the GM simply has to keep track of more details.

  2. Nathan P. said

    “it doesn’t really work for any simulationist agenda.”

    …buh?

    Sometime, hopefully soon, I’ll talk more about Sim. But modeling NPCs in the same manner as PCs is totally a technique, and non-CA-determined.

    Good point about keeping track of more details. I think the best thing to do for games like that is to build tools that help the GM keep track of the details. That would be teh awesome.

  3. Nathan, I’d love to hear how Sim can see PCs and NPCs as fundamentally different things! Please write!🙂

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