Archive for the ‘Game Design’ Category

Chess and RPGs and Stories

October 7, 2014

So recently John Wick, who is a heck of a smart dude and a heck of a game designer, wrote a thing about chess and RPGs and stories, and everyone spent a moment in thoughtful contemplation.

Ha, no, of course not.  Everyone freaked right the heck out.  And who am I to fight a trend?  Anyway, this won’t make much sense unless you go read John’s thing first, so you definitely should.

“These things are roleplaying games, and these other things are not roleplaying games” should not, in theory, be anything to freak out over.  In practice, people have always freaked out over this sort of thing:

  • “This stuff is punk music, this other stuff is not punk music”
  • “This stuff is science fiction, this other stuff is not science fiction”
  • “These opinions are feminist, these other opinions are not feminist”
  • “These people are Christian, these other people are not really Christian”
  • “These objects are planets, but Pluto over there is not a planet”

Always with the freaking out, despite (or perhaps because of) it not really making any difference.  One day call Pluto a planet, the next call it not a planet — it’s still the same cold ball of rock that it ever was.  One day call D&D an RPG, the next decide it’s not — it’s still the same thing.  Nothing changes.  “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”

I’m predisposed to the tack taken by the fine people over at Story Games who basically decided, fine, if calling something an RPG is really upsetting you that much, we’ll call it something else.  Anyone get upset if we call it a Story Game?  No?  Okay good.

That’s not a bad segue into stories, which is mostly what Wick is talking about.  “The focus of an RPG is to tell stories” he asserts, and I’m not inclined to disagree with him.

Here’s a story:  “Gutboy Barrelhouse was born, grew up, and found some friends.  They wanted some gold, and they heard there was some gold in a hole in the ground, so down they went.  Then Gutboy got stung by a giant bee and he died.”

That’s a story.  Maybe it’s a good story, maybe it’s not — that argument has been around long before anyone was arguing what’s an RPG and what isn’t, and lots of people a lot smarter than anyone I know have tackled it, and we’re still not any closer to solving it.

So let’s say we have the story of Gutboy and his good friend Falstaff and how they descended into a hole in the ground.  It’s a D&D story which means, as I have mentioned earlier, that it’s about our heroes solving their problems with violence.

How shall we establish contrast and distinguish between the characters of Gutboy and Falstaff?  It won’t be through their motivations, because they share the same motivation.  It won’t be through their past, because they have no past.

The obvious answer is to distinguish them by their personal means of inflicting violence, which is, of course, what our story is about.  Ergo, a big list of weapons is exactly what this story needs, despite John Wick’s assertion that it’s just noise that gets in the way of telling the story.

And we get a story of Gutboy inflicting violence upon his enemies with a dozen tiny knives and deaths of a thousand cuts, and of Falstaff decapitating his foes with an enormous bearded axe, and it’s a good (or not) story.  Then they get stung by giant bees and die.

We see this all the time in non-RPG but still violence-based stories.  Characterization through weaponry, I mean, not death by giant bees.  Dirty Harry and his .357 Magnum.  James Bond and his Walther PPK.  David and his sling versus Goliath and his sword.

I mostly agree with what John Wick has to say on this topic; I think our slight disagreements arise merely by virtue of being interested in different types of stories.  Which is, of course, not any sort of problem at all.

Violence Through the Ages (of D&D)

September 26, 2014

A smart person, upon considering my last post, asked me about how it relates to the various editions of D&D over the years.

The short, easy answer is that the basic Promise of D&D has been invariant; it’s as true today as it was in 1974.

The longer, but somewhat less on-topic answer, is more interesting.  To speak in the broadest of generalities:

In older D&D, violence is the means to an end.

In newer D&D, violence is the means and the end; violence is its own reward.

Let’s consider how this informs certain facets of the game.

Experience Points:  To start with the obvious, in older D&D, the characters won most of their XP from treasure, and practically none from slaying monsters.  Although they typically pulled the treasure from the bodies of their slain enemies.  In newer D&D, the characters don’t get any XP from treasure, but instead get almost all their XP from slaying monsters.  In other words, we shift from “killing monsters to get their treasure” to “killing monsters to kill monsters.”

Morale:  Older D&D typically features a system to model the morale of enemies, so that there’s some chance that some of them run away to fight another day.  This is no problem because the characters have no reason to mind, as long as the monsters drop all their treasure before running away.  But it is a problem in newer D&D, when the entire point is to kill them.  Various systems to award partial or full XP for fleeing opponents have been attempted, but they’ve never really worked that well.

Random Encounters:  The traditional way to ‘punish’ characters who take too long to get on with it, act overly-cautious, argue loudly, or are just unlucky is to subject them to a random encounter.  These monsters generally have little or no treasure, so are strictly nuisances in OD&D.  With newer D&D, a random encounter is its own reward, and it hardly makes much difference to the characters if they’re fighting four orcs who randomly jumped them on the side of the road or four orcs who have been patiently waiting for them in a 10’x10′ room.

Wealth:  When picking up gold means picking up XP, the characters have a good reason to pick up gold.  When gold is just a shiny metal to buy things with, there’s a certain pressure to give the characters something meaningful to buy — or to live with them just leaving sacks of gold lying around because they can’t be bothered to pick the heavy stuff up.  The most common wealth sink in various version of newer D&D is ye olde magical item shoppe, which is not a terrible solution, but it has its own problems.

Goals and Motivation:  When violence is its own reward, it becomes trivially-easy to encourage the players to attack just about anyone or anything, which makes the DM’s job that much easier.  When the players are trying to maximize their profits, there’s an additional layer of planning and consideration.  It’s no longer enough just to kill some orcs; now they want to kill specifically the orcs with the most treasure.

Magical Items, Again:  In older D&D we generally don’t see a lot of characters buying a lot of magical items, but we certainly see characters selling them, to get the treasure and thereby the XP.  As a result, no magical item is ever really pointless, since it can be converted to XP.  And even the useful magical items will tempt the players to consider selling it for the XP anyway.  With newer D&D we also see the selling of magical items, but that just gets us back around to the question of what they’re doing with all that gold, and the answer is probably that they’re buying other magical items with it.

This sort of retrospective analysis reveals more about the effects of game design than it does about the goals of game design.  I have my doubts that any of the authors of any of these versions intentionally set out to encourage any of these particular behaviours.  But it remains a useful analysis, in my opinion.

The Promise of D&D

September 25, 2014

I’ve been thinking lately about the promise of D&D.  By that I mean I’ve been thinking about its ‘product promise’ or ‘brand promise’ or whatever the latest buzzword for the concept is — that any product carries with it a promise to its consumer:  Consume me, and… some certain thing will happen.

It’s a little weird to apply this to something like entertainment and RPGs, but I think it relates to what theme (or Premise, if we want to drag Egri into this, and of course we do) will be expressed.  For example, I might offer that the promise of the romance novel is that true love will prevail over all obstacles.  Can this be applied to D&D?  Let’s see…

Let it be resolved that:  The promise of D&D is that all the important problems in life can be solved with violence.

That’s sort of a big bold statement, so let me carry on with immediately backtracking and clarifying.

Look, if your own personal D&D game involves 90% of the time spent talking to people, or peacefully marching through the wilderness, or otherwise not sticking sharp pieces of metal into squishy bags of meat, that’s just fine.  I’m not trying to tell you you’re playing D&D all wrong or missing the point or anything like that.

I might suggest that D&D, as a system, doesn’t offer as much support as several other systems for problem-solving methods beyond the immediate application of stabbing.  But you probably already knew that, so let’s move on.

And if you solved a couple of your big important D&D problems without resorting to violence, out of dozens, that’s fine too.  I don’t believe D&D promises that you must solve all your important problems with violence — merely that you could, if you felt like it, which you probably will.

So let us proceed with assuming, at least for the moment, that I might just be on to something here.  Does it tell us anything useful?  I think it might.

The Pacifist Character:  What happens when someone wants to play a D&D character who isn’t really all that motivated, or perhaps even capable, of applying violence to their problems?  I would suggest to you that there is an inherent, mostly intractable problem with this, and it’s never really going to work out all that well.  About the closest to success we can get is the pacifist healer, who spends all his time ensuring that his violent friends can continue applying violence to others without suffering too greatly from the violence being applied to them.  Which, yes, is some brand of pacifism, in theory, but it does look quite a bit like violence-by-proxy.

The Economic Campaign:  It’s possible to set up the party as merchants, almost always some brand of importing, exporting, or otherwise transporting merchandise, disregarding monsters and acquiring wealth.  How likely is this sort of campaign to flourish?  If there’s lots of violence involved, the odds are good; if there’s not, the odds are not good.

The Political, Diplomatic, Chatty Campaign:  A campaign can start with, or eventually evolve into, a series of peaceful conversations between the player characters and everyone else.  These can flourish particularly well if the experience affirms Carl von Clausewitz’s adage (and its reverse) that “War is the continuation of politics by other means”; but they often struggle otherwise.

The Natural Alignment of the D&D Character:  Every once in a while someone smart asserts that most D&D characters drift towards evil, or it’s easier to run a campaign for evil characters, or something of that sort.  I’ve never quite agreed with them, but I’ve never quite been able to entirely dismiss the notion either.

I think what we’re getting at here is a relatively profound statement about the human condition:  people who believe that violence solves their problems are, to some degree and definition, evil; the more problems they think violence will solve, the more evil they are.

Please note that I’m not trying to assert that all or most or many D&D players — the real-life human beings — are, in fact, evil, or even have evil tendencies.  The allure of the dream, to pretend to be in a world where the good guys can solve all their problems with violence, stems precisely from the moral unwillingness to pursue that approach out in the real world.  And it’s a powerful dream — I would suggest there’s lots and lots of examples in every sort of media which offer up this same basic promise.

This is a considerably more controversial statement to make about humanity than just some theory about an RPG, so I think I’ll just leave it here as an object to contemplate upon.

I now really want to tackle other RPGs and figure out what their Promises are, but I think this is a good start.

Fate Corps: Skills as Aspects as Qualities

October 17, 2011

Let’s start with skills.  What *is* a skill, or a Strands-of-Fate attribute?  What is Strength+2?

It’s basically an Aspect that’s always invoked, that you never have to pay for.  So why doesn’t it look like an Aspect?

Let’s consider a new thing: Qualities.  A Quality is a type of Aspect, or perhaps an Aspect is a type of Quality.  Unlike an Aspect, you don’t need to pay to invoke a Quality.  It’s always invoked, all the time, for free.  Also unlike Aspects, Qualities are often ranked.

So, what is Strength+2, really?

Maybe it’s Strength+2 (Ninja [+1], Way of the Tiger [+1]).  Or it could be Ninja+2, or (Weightlifter +3, Over the Hill -1.)

“Ninja”, here, is a Quality, and it adds +1 to this character’s Strength.  Perhaps it also adds +2 to his Endurance, and maybe even -1 to Empathy.

That whole thing about “Hey why am I only Ninja when I pay Fate Point for it?” goes away with this implementation.  You are Ninja all the time without paying for it.

This undermines the idea of Aspects as primary characterization, somewhat — and I think that’s a good thing.  If “Ninja” is really central to your character, then he should probably be Ninja all the time.

It’s already invoked (or, depending, compelled) all the time, so it’s not really valid to try to invoke it again for another +2.  You’re already Strength+2 by dint of being Ninja — try a different Aspect.

However, it’s entirely valid to invoke or compel Qualities *for effect*.  You want to spend a Fate Point to have a smoke bomb?  Dude, you are Ninja — of course you have a smoke bomb.  Spend the point and be good.

Similarly, compels for effect are also valid.  If you’re Paladin all the time, then off you go to save the princess from the evil necromancer.

It’s a fine way to implement things like races.  If you are a dwarf, then get the Dwarf+1 quality to your Endurance.  But take Dwarf-1 to your Comeliness.  If you also want to be particularly dwarfy, then sure, take a “Dwarf Among Dwarves” Aspect as well, if you like.  There’s also another way to do it which I’ll mention in a bit.

What else works like Qualities?  Consequences, that’s what.  Say someone breaks your arm.  That major consequence can be the Broken Arm -2 Quality.  You don’t get paid off with Fate points every time your opponents take advantage of your broken arm. You just get the -2.  Maybe to every roll, maybe not.

So say you’ve got a scene in a place where it’s really dark.  Sure, you could make that a Dark Aspect on the scene.  Everyone pay up if you’re hiding better because it’s Dark or stumbling over things.

Or you could make it a Quality.  Dark:1.  That’s a +1 to some skills and a -1 to others; you could enumerate them all by skill and trapping if you really wanted to, but you probably have better things to do.

So someone might want to hide in the Dark, but might want more than that +1 bonus.  How can they get it?  One way would be to Invoke For Effect — “Hey, it’s Dark in here, right?  I use my Perception to find some Shadowy Shadows to hide in, and Invoke for Effect.”  So that character is placing the Aspect “Shadowy Shadows” on the scene, and getting a free tag on it, for an additional +2.  Assuming they make that roll, of course — the GM could make it really easy (“Oh yeah, there’s shadows everywhere, no problem”) or really difficult (“It’s totally dark — every part seems just as  shadowy as every other part”) or anywhere in between.

So our old friend who is a Dwarf Among Dwarves would perhaps rather do things this way — just make ad-hoc invocations of his Dwarf Quality to put Dwarf Among Dwarves on himself, and then tag it.  The possibility of a skill roll is what makes this different and inferior to buying the Aspect outright.

So what’s the real difference here between Aspects and Qualities?  Should that dark room have the Dark Aspect, or the Dark Quality?

This gets into the philosophy behind what’s going on narratively with Fate Points. What’s the difference between the guy who is Strength+2 and the guy who has the Strong Aspect?

The difference, in my opinion, is free will.  It’s about choice.  The Strength+2 person is strong all the time — when they’re asleep, in the shower, etc.  The Strong person can choose to make an extra effort to lift that heavy thing.

When it comes to scenes and things, I like to imagine a robot or giant insect or other thing with no free will or volition.  Is that robot having problems moving around that Dark room?  Then it’s probably the Dark Quality.  Or can the giant insect move around without problems, although a human could easily take advantage of the shadowy darkness?  Then that points towards the Dark Aspect.

It can also help build up difficulties.  Why is this wall +3 to climb?  Well, it’s Wall +3 (Tall+1, Slippery When Wet+3, Ivy-1).  That implies the mechanical effects of waiting around until it stops raining.

There could very easily be two characters in the same game, in the same party, and one has Ninja as a Quality and the other has Ninja as an Aspect.  That’s no problem at all.  Quality Ninja is Ninja all the time.  Aspect Ninja is only Ninja when he feels like it.  Qualities are truly the “this is what this character *is*” part of the game, while Aspects become “this is what the character *can be when he feels like it*” part.  It can even become a part of character ‘advancement’, if the character changes his Aspect to a Quality, or vice versa.

Assessing:  Unlike Aspects, Qualities are almost always self-evident.  You don’t need to roll to know that the wall is tall and wet, that that guy over there is a cop.  You might need a bit more finesse to know that a particular guy is Cop:+2 and not Cop:+1, but even that’s probably easier than noticing he has the Aspect: Behind On My Mortgage Payments.

Manoeuvring:  I’ve actually already covered this, although you may have missed it. If a character wants to give the room the Dark Quality, as opposed to just the Dark Aspect, can he do that?  How?  In fact, I’ve already told you how you establish new Qualities — it’s what attacks do, by establishing consequences.  Indeed, that is what distinguishes the ‘attack’ version of ‘I shove him off balance’ from  the ‘manoeuvre’ version.  If your character wants to add the Dark Quality to  the room, he makes an attack — perhaps against the lighting.  And, yes, this means  that, finally, you can literally attack the darkness.

Levels:  In some systems, the player characters are just flat-out better than the average person.  One way to do this is to give those characters a Quality like “Centurion:+1” that applies to every skill there is.  The average person might default to +0 on a skill, but the PCs default to +1.  Why?  Because Centurion, that’s why.

You could use this to level up the party.  After a while, everyone is Centurion:+2.  This does two things:  It increases all their skills by 1 (probably) and it  increases the minimum skill default by 1.  That’s a characteristic of level-based systems (like the various D&Ds) in contrast to skill-based systems (like the various GURPSs.)  In a level-based Fate game, you would know that 3rd-level characters have at least a +3 in every skill — Endurance, Wealth, etc.  That can make scaling some things a lot easier — you can determine, for example, that every 3rd-level character can survive a point-blank shotgun blast from a 1st-level enemy.  Without a level system, you generally don’t know that.

Qualities As Skills:  Consider this enemy:

Ninjas! — Ninja+2.

By which I mean: this guy has a +2 in the Ninja skill.

What the heck is in the Ninja skill?  I don’t know.  I mean, I *know*, just like you do, but it’s not written down anywhere.  I know what the trappings are associated with that skill.  Stabbing the characters with his sword, climb up walls, etc.  Trying to sell the characters life insurance, not so much.

Is that superior to listing out every enemies’ Strength, Fists, Melee Weapons, Athletics, etc etc etc skills?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  If you don’t know what the trappings of the Ninja skill are, you’re probably a lot better off with the extensive list.

Does this turn the game into Risus?  Yeah, sort of.

Is this the same as the Quality of Ninja+2?  It’s certainly very similar.

Of course, the Ninja skill and all the ‘usual’ skills are not mutually exclusive.  You could customize up this guy:  Ninja+2, Swords+1, Climbing-1.  That guy is +3 to hit you with a sword, +1 to climb up a tree.

Is that exactly the same as a 3rd-level Centurion?  It is looking pretty similar, isn’t it.

So, that’s Qualities.  Give them a try.

Narrativist IF: Does it exist? Can it exist?

April 20, 2011

The following is an embarrassingly length response to one of Emily Short’s blog posts.  You may want to skip to the end.

A brief introduction to GNS

Consider someone playing an RPG.  Why are they playing?  What makes it fun for them?  What is their primary concern?

Actually, let me back up for a minute.  Why do we care?  What is this theory trying to accomplish?

The underlying phenomenon that GNS was built to address is laid out in the first two sentences of the GNS essay:  “My straightforward observation of the activity of role-playing is that many participants do not enjoy it very much. Most role-players I encounter are tired, bitter, and frustrated.”

The theory arises out of that observation, suggesting that people are unhappy because they don’t know what they want, or they aren’t getting what they want, or that the various people in the game want different things that are functionally mutually-exclusive.

Anyway, to get back to the immediate question of why people are playing and what makes it fun for them:  these considerations overall are referred to as a person’s Creative Agenda.  There are three distinct Creative Agendas that are widely-recognized:

* Gamism, or “Step On Up”.  This is about the players, the real people, meeting the challenge of the game and (hopefully) overcoming it through their own skills.

* Simulationism, or “Right to Dream”.  This is all about exploring the game and all its various pieces.

* Narrativism, or “Story Now”.  This is about Addressing the Premise and producing Theme; more about those terms later.

One may note at this point that the Creative Agendas refer to a person’s priorities at a particular moment of play.  So it’s not really correct to refer to someone as a Gamist or as a Narrativist.  However, it’s very useful to occasionally discuss people’s typical preferences over time, such that someone who tends to like and enjoy adopting the Creative Agenda of Simulationism can generally be referred to as a Simulationist and everyone knows what we mean.

It’s also not really correct to refer to a game as Narrativist or whatnot.  But again, some games tend to provide better support for certain Creative Agendas than others.  So if we say, for example, “Primetime Adventures is a Narrativist game” then people usually understand that we mean that it provides support for players with the Creative Agenda of Narrativism, and we usually mean to imply that it does not provide much support for pursuing the other Creative Agendas.

GNS and non-RPGs

With all those caveats behind us, we can start considering how the Creative Agendas might apply to computer games in general and interactive fiction specifically.

Simulationism is fairly straightforward.  Videogames such as, well, The Sims, as well as the various versions of Civilization, the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series, and many others provide strong support for the sort of player activities which characterize the Simulationist Creative Agenda.

On the interactive fiction side, games like Savoir Faire, Delightful Wallpaper, and Rover’s Day Out can be very enjoyable to Simulationist players.  The fun comes from observing the simulation, exploring it, learning its rules, and applying those rules to bend it to your will.

Gamism is also fairly straightforward.  Any game which might reasonably support a competition probably has good Gamist support.  So we have classics like Tetris and Pac-Man, all manner of first-person-shooters, and so forth.

Gamist interactive fiction is more unusual.  Games with lots of puzzles, particularly very hard ones, can be enjoyed by Gamists.  I would put Varicella and The Duel That Spanned the Ages into this category, among others.

I may be in danger of implying a false mutual-exclusivity here.  Such is the danger with my increasingly-loose usage and abuse of the terminology.  It’s possible to play Civilization with a Gamist bent, and one can play Varicella while pursing a Simulationist agenda.

Back to Narrativsm

Finally, we arrive at the burning question of the hour, which is:  are there any Narrativist interactive fiction games out there?

My description of Narrativism was pretty weak, so let me start (again) there:

Narrativism is the agenda of Addressing the Premise and producing Theme.

A Premise in this sense is a problematic aspect of the human condition.  Some examples include:

* Is the life of a friend worth the safety of a community?
* Can love overcome all obstacles?
* Does faith lead to salvation, or destruction?

One of the big deals with Narrativism is that the Premise must be answered through play; it cannot be pre-determined.

Consider a game like Photopia.  It’s a good game, I would say; it was worth experiencing.  Is it Simulationist?  I don’t think it’d be very enjoyable if I used it in pursuit of a Simulationist agenda; there’s not really enough game in there.  Similarly, it’s hard to consider it a Gamist piece, either.

Can a player pursue the Narrativist Creative Agenda through it?  It depends to what degree you think the author is demonstrating his own predetermined Premise to you, and how much freedom you, as a player, have to decide the Premise on your own.  I don’t think I’m being too controversial when I say that the Premise of Photopia has been written and expressed by the author, though.

If you skipped everything else, here’s the conclusion

In the general case, interactive fiction tends to be much like regular static fiction when it comes to Narrativism.  In a standard novel, the Premise is not a question — it’s a statement, by the author.  Yes, the life of a friend is worth the safety of a community.  The novel serves to prove that, in its own specific case, the Premise stands.

So, on its face, it would appear that we’re out of luck when it comes to Narrativist interactive fiction.  It does not seem to be technically possible to pursue that particular Creative Agenda.

However, as I’ve mentioned before, we’ve been playing pretty loose with our terminology, and perhaps it’s all caught up with us.  It’s not possible for any game to be literally Narrativist, nor is it possible for any person.

Narrativism merely describes a category of answers to the questions of: why am I playing this game?  Why do I find it fun?  It seems fair to me to say that a Narrativist game is nothing more or less than a game that’s likely to be enjoyed by people who tend to pursue the Narrativist Creative Agenda.

If we accept that, then I think there is Narrativist interactive fiction after all.  It includes works that are primarily concerned with Premise, with addressing and advancing the Premise, and with drawing the player into complicity.

Interactive fiction is particularly well-suited to advancing the author’s Premise, because it affords the reader the unique opportunity to become complicit in the story.  You may wish dearly to believe that, for example, theft is never justified.  But, with skill, a good work of interactive fiction can cajole you into going along with a theft.  Or it can go very badly — it’s very hard to like an otherwise stellar work if you find yourself deeply offended by its Premise.  Such are the risks involved.

Examples of such games include Floatpoint, Slouching Towards Bedlam, and Vespers.

PtAing Fringe Season 3: Episode 1, Olivia

March 30, 2011

In this series (hopefully) of posts, I’ll be using Primetime Adventures to analyze and dissect the various episodes of the third season of Fringe.  I’ll start with the pilot episode of season 3, “Olivia”.


Episode Analysis:

I think it may be most useful to our purposes to consider the first three scenes, which form the Prologue, as a single “scene” for PtA purposes.

Focus:  This is purely a plot advancement scene.  Indeed, it doesn’t even really advance the plot per se as much as establish the plot; it’s an establishing scene.  This is what this episode will be about.  It almost literally has an “As you know, Bob” speech.

Agenda:  (“…should explain what the likely conflict is.”)  Secretary Bishop at his cronies are trying to implant a new personality into Olivia, who is trying to keep her current personality.

Location:  Technically the three scenes each have their own location, but it’s not too much of a stretch to consider them all taking place, more or less, at the Liberty Island Prison.

Cast:  Again, the cast varies slightly between the three scenes, but it’s substantially the same throughout the prologue.  In total, we have Olivia, Secretary Bishop, Brandon, Doctor Anderson, and various soldiers.

I think it might be useful to consider Secretary Bishop as the only ‘real’ character other than Olivia, although Brandon comes pretty close too.  The others — Doctor Anderson, the soldiers — are essentially just proxies or puppets of the Secretary.  It’s sort of an interesting technique — compare this use of proxies to Walter Bishop, who is generally doing things himself and getting his hands dirty.

So that might be a handy tip to keep in the PtA toolbox — a character can be “present” in a scene without personally being there, by using a proxy minor character.

Practically, it would also be sort of clever to let the players handle both their ‘real world’ character and their ‘alternate universe’ version.  They’re never on screen at the same time, so that wouldn’t be a problem.

Conflict:  First of all, this is a fairly nice example of conflict escalation.  The Secretary wants to imprint memories on Olivia, it isn’t working, so he escalates his actions.  Olivia wants to go home, but she hasn’t been able to, so she escalates her actions.

So we have the stakes:

Olivia:  Can I escape the prison?
Secretary Bishop:  Can I imprint new memories onto Olivia?

Olivia has a whole lot of screen presence, and the producer is not inclined to spend a lot of budget at this early point.  It’s a little strange that, according to PtA, both conflicts must be against the same difficulty.  Possibly there’s a bit of room for a hack here.

Anyway, we go to the cards, and both Olivia and Secretary Bishop win their stakes.  Olivia is narrated to have escaped the prison right away.

For the Secretary’s stakes, though… I think the narrator has decided to delay gratification, which I think is legal, if wildly-underutilized, by the PtA rules as written.  It’s an interesting technique; I’ll be keeping it in the back of my mind for future reference, to see if it comes up in other episodes.

And that about wraps up the Prologue.  Cut to commercial!

Act I:

The ‘main’ scene here is the one in the cab, with Olivia and Henry.  We occasionally cut away to different scenes, which PtA explicitly recommends.

Focus:  This is a character development scene.  It mostly involves the characters’ opinions of other characters.  But it’s intercut with a plot advancement scene, which is a pretty good way to do it.

Agenda:  Olivia jumps into Henry’s cab and tells him to drive.

Location:  This all happens inside the cab, which probably counts as a personal set for Henry.

Cast:  We’ve got Olivia again, and a new character, Henry the cab driver.  He’s not a major character in the series as a whole, but he’s the other main character in this particular episode.  Peter’s player has little to do this episode; maybe he’s running the character.

Conflict:  We’re treading pretty close to player-versus-player conflict here, but I think we can avoid it.

This was a bit of a tricky one to analyze, and I can imagine some PtA players wrecking the scene in a variety of ways.  I suspect the key here is to focus on The Issue, as usual.

Which means I should probably get around to The Issue, which I’ve been avoiding up until now, as I’m sure the astute reader will have noticed.  As I see it, the Issue for Olivia is this:  “Who am I?”

Specific to this episode, the Issue is expressed as:  “Am I the person that everyone thinks I am, which is the sane answer, or am I the person I believe I am, which seems totally insane?”

Interestingly enough, I think this idea of ‘the search for identity’ is also essentially the Issue for both Peter and Walter.  It might be something to try in a PtA game — give everyone in the series the same Issue, more or less,  and see how they each tackle it.

To bring us back to the scene, we have two people trying to form and exert their individual opinion on the matter:

Olivia:  I am She Who Must Be Obeyed; if you don’t do as I say, bad things will happen to you.
Henry:  That lady is crazy.  Crazy!  Isn’t she?

Some specific lines underscore this idea:

“What I need you to do right now is I need you to drive.”
“You’re not in any trouble, Henry… As long as you do exactly as I say.”
“If you alert anyone, Henry, I assure you trouble will find you.”
“Well, I’m not insane. I’m not who they say I am.”

“I’m gonna need you to Show Me. You know I can’t put this cab into drive without your I.D.”
“Why are you wearing a hospital gown? Are you sick?”
“Nice ink [tattoo]. What’s it mean?”

This can be a bit tricky because many other RPGs treat “Player X tries to change Player Y’s mind” as a direct, opposed conflict.  The trick here with PtA is to make sure each player has his own, unique opinion that he’s trying to impose.

Olivia is trying to convince Henry… of what?  That’s she’s sane?  Not really.  I mean, she does claim she’s not insane, but that’s not most of what she says.  Most of what she says involves threatening Henry.  Indeed, it’s hardly detrimental to her threats if Henry believes she’s crazy.

Henry is trying to convince Olivia… of what?  That he doesn’t need to do what she says?  He offers up only the most feeble resistance.  Most of what he says involves trying to convince himself, and incidentally Olivia, that she’s crazy.

If we consider the matrix of success and failure, we can see that all the outcomes are potentially interesting.

The actual outcome is that Olivia succeeds (again) while Henry fails.  Olivia probably lost narration here, though, because she succeeds in getting to the opera house only to find it encased in amber.  Man, that narrator is a jerk.

Also note the use of one of Olivia’s Edges — “Photographic Memory.”  Not easy to work that into a threat; nice work by the player.

The intercut scene involves the other characters getting their search for Olivia underway.  The Focus, as mentioned earlier, is plot advancement.  The Agenda is essentially “hey gang let’s start looking for Olivia.”  Most of the action happens in a hospital, which is one of those sets that keeps showing up in the series.

The cast consists of Colonel Broyles, Secretary Bishop, Agent Francis, Lincoln Lee, and an extra named Melissa.

There really isn’t any conflict here.  Nothing good comes from “My stakes are whether Lincoln Lee stays in bed for the rest of the episode.”

It’s a bit of foreshadowing, a bit of plot advancement; an interstitial scene.  It probably could have been cut without any ill effects.

Act II:

This contains a couple of scenes that are probably best viewed as continuations of the scenes of Act I.

The intercut scene of “we’re looking for Olivia” continues on into the first part of this Act.  Again, stakes like “do we find out where Olivia is?” probably don’t work very well.

The main scene, in the taxi, carries on to its logical conclusion.

Act III:

Now we’re cooking with some real new scenes.  The main scene here is at the gas station; it technically starts just a little earlier, with Lincoln’s appearance.

The Focus here is essentially character development.  You can tell it’s not plot advancement because the state of the plot — “Olivia’s on the run; the rest of Fringe is trying to find her” — doesn’t change between the start of the scene and the end.

The Agenda is Lincoln confronting Olivia.  For the cast, we have Olivia, Lincoln Lee, Henry, and Agent Francis.  Well, sort of Agent Francis.  He’s got two whole lines in this scene:  “Liv!” and “Hey!”  So he hardly counts.

Conflict:  For a short scene, this has quite a bit going on.  We’ve got three players who all have their own stakes.

Lincoln, like Henry before him, is trying to convince Olivia that she’s crazy and needs to come in.

Henry, having decided in an earlier scene that Olivia isn’t crazy, has yet to really help her of his own free will.  His stakes here are:  Do I voluntarily help Olivia escape?

For Olivia, it’s tempting to make her stakes something like “Do I escape or not?”  But there’s good dramatic and gameplay reasons not to do that.  If she’s simply captured again, we’re more or less back at where we started at the beginning of this episode.  And if she succeeds in escaping but fails to win narration, there’s a pretty good chance that jerk narrator would make her shoot Lincoln in the head.  It’s what I’d do as narrator.

Taking another look at Olivia’s Issue, we can see her stakes here are:  “Am I a cold-blooded killer?”

Again, it’s worth thinking about all the various combinations of success and failure.  Maybe Olivia shoots Lincoln, and that’s what convinces her that she’s gone insane.  Maybe Lincoln talks Olivia into coming in, but Henry decides to drive off with her anyways, convinced she’s more sane than the people chasing her.  Maybe there’s a gunfight and Henry runs for the hills.

The really interesting thing here is that Olivia’s player decides to use one of her alternate-universe-version’s Edges — Olympic Sharpshooter.  That’s a great way to mechanically give some weight to the false memories taking hold.  I bet she got some sweet fanmail for that.

The cards come out and Olivia wins, Henry wins, and Lincoln loses.  And Agent Francis gets to yell a bit.

The next scene here isn’t a PtA ‘scene’ at all — it’s that belated narration of Secretary Bishop’s success, way way back from the Prologue.  Pretty neat, eh.

Act IV:

Again, essentially two scenes here.  The first, Mixing Memories, is back in Henry’s personal set, the cab.

The focus is still character development; cast is still Olivia and Henry.  Henry really doesn’t have any stakes here; he’s pretty much done with wrestling with his decisions this episode.

Olivia’s stakes here are “Do I think of somewhere to go that’s safe from my pursuers?”  The producer still has a fat wad of budget to spend, and it’s time for him to start burning it.  Olivia’s still got a trick up her sleeve, though — she brings in a Connection from her alternate-universe-version.  Which continues to be a pretty slick manouever and is still probably worth some sweet fanmail.

These stakes are a little subtle; they’re basically determining whether the place she goes, wherever it may be, will have Fringe agents all over it.  It’s not simply an issue of “Do I decide to hide in a gutter, or in Secretary Bishop’s garden shed?”

She fails the draw pretty badly, and happily heads off to her mom’s house — or, at least, her alternate-version-mom’s house.

The intercut scene here is basically driven by the main scene — the usual gang chasing her is allowed, by the stakes of the main scene, to figure out that the mom’s house is the place to go.  And poor old Frank, dead for many an episode, gets to make an appearance.

One last little bit of narration sneaks into the end of the main scene.  Henry finally gets a chance to explain how and why he tagged his Connection: Jasmine, My Wife way back when he was trying to decide if Olivia was crazy or not:

“You know, a few years ago, I was in a bad way. Couldn’t pull myself out. Inside, I knew I was somebody else. There’s only one person who believed that… Jasmine. She saw the man I knew I was. But she was the only one.”

That’s a nice bit of long-delayed justification for bringing a Connection into a conflict which, at the time, might have seemed pretty sketchy.  But Henry’s player set it up fair-and-square, by mentioning the picture of his family in his cab quite early on.  For another example, see the very early mention of alternate-Olivia’s gold medal in marksmanship, which came up as an Edge quite a bit later on in the episode.

The lesson here:  figure out some way to bring your Connections and Edges into the narrative of a scene, even if it’s obliquely.  They may well come in handy.  And the other lesson:  trust your fellow players if they draw a card for a Connection or an Edge that might not seem justified at the time.  They probably know what they’re doing.  They’ll explain it eventually.

Act V:

There’s one last ‘real’ scene here, and a few small wrapping-up plot sccenes.

The main scene is at mom’s house.  The Focus is character advancement.  The Agenda is, much like previous scenes, “Marilyn the mom tries to convince Olivia she’s really the alternate version.”

Olivia has one last chance to win her “I’m not the alternate-universe version of me!” stakes.  But the deck is stacked against her, especially with the Edge and Connection that she’s brought in.  Technically I don’t think there’s any way for a Producer to use an Edge or Connection “against” a character, but it might not be a bad house rule.

It’s still not a foregone conclusion; if Olivia wins her stakes somehow, it might mean that she’s managed to hold onto the truth but can fake it well enough to fool everyone else.

But she doesn’t win.  She loses, and her assimilation is complete.  Her little chat with Agent Francis later on is essentially a bit more narration from this scene.

A few notes about the remaining plot-wrapping-up scenes:

“Liberty Island – Memory Implant”:  finally, *finally*, the narrator who won Secretary Bishop’s stakes way way way back in the Prologue gets to finish his narration.  His patience adds a nice touch.

“Fringe Division – Pressing for Details”:  This is both a bit of plot-wrapup for this episode, and some foreshadowing for conflict yet-to-come in future episodes.  It certainly works fine as a “Next time on Fringe…” teaser.

“Congressional Building – Personal Testimony”:  I’m not really sure why this scene is here.  Maybe Peter is contractually-obligated to appear in every episode.  Anyway, nothing to see here.

“Congressional Grounds – Budding Romance”:  This is pretty much pure foreshadowing.


So… that’s the episode analysis.  As a bit of trivia, the episode had 257 lines of dialogue; here’s how they broke down:

Olivia: 80 lines, or 31 percent.
Henry:  42
Lincoln: 19
Agent Francis: 18
Broyles: 17.

This analysis was 2600 words long; thanks for reading.  Next time on PTAing Fringe, I’ll be looking at episode 302: The Box.  Stay tuned!

Must Read: Anti-Grind Guide

March 9, 2010

About a year ago, Stalker0 wrote a guide to avoiding the grind in 4E combat. Like a fine wine, it keeps getting better with age. Read it and be enlightened:

Stalker0’s Guide to Anti-Grind

From a purely structural viewpoint, it’s wonderfully well-written. It describes the symptoms of the problem, the causes of the problem, and the cure for the problem. If you read only one thing before DMing a 4E game, read this.

Must Read: Dungeon layout

February 3, 2010

This post from ENWorld is a must-read analysis of dungeon layout.

Dungeon layout, map flow and old school game design

Clever, clever work.

One Page Dungeon Contest: Thoughts

January 25, 2010

By any measure, the 2009 One Page Dungeon Contest was a smashing success. With the 2010 edition underway (deadline is March 1st), I thought it’d be a good time to think about the concept.

I found the remarks of one of the judges to be very instructive. In examining which dungeons were really successful, I came to realize a shift in perspective.

Rather than thinking of them in terms of a dungeon on one page, they’re really more like One Page Settings. The setting typically revolves around a dungeon, but it’s still a setting. And the good ones have all the attributes of a good setting. Good characters, good atmosphere, good locations, good plot.

That’s the current state of the art as far as my thinking on the subject goes. So far.

Dice and Clouds and SotC and D&D 4E

May 12, 2009

I wrote an important post (important to me, anyway) about D&D 4E (among other things) but lacked the good sense to actually post it to my own blog.  But here’s a link, mostly so I can find it again if and when I need to.

Story Games:  Dice and Clouds and SotC and D&D 4E