Monday, November 17, 2014

What does the Antagonist Want?

First, taste, as illustrated in two music videos.  Do yourself a favor and watch both.  Watch both the whole way through, it's very much worth it and I think they will illuminate much of my thinking on the topic of the blog post.

1. Akron/Family "Silly Bears"

2. Scott Walker/Sunn O))) "Brando"
Both of these are classified under "Experimental Rock" and I enjoy the hell out of them both.  But, there is a huge difference in tone and they illustrate much of how I've been thinking about running RPGs late.

Make sure you've watch both and then continue reading.

Silly Bears is one of my favorite Akron/Family tracks, it's fun, it's weird, it's about bears.  It's got a decent call to adventure vibe built into it.  Thinking about D&D, this song feels to me like what the majority of my players want from D&D. Fairly light, action packed, a little silly.
Now go back and watch the video for Brando the whole way through, because I'd bet money you didn't the first time.  Admit it, you stopped after a minute, maybe two, but you didn't watch the whole thing.
Brando reflects the game I'd like to run, it's dark, it's demanding, it's allusive.  The song's lyrics take their cues from the movie scenes where Marlon Brando is beat up, but bring in his birthplace, the whippoorwill.  As unsettling as the song itself is, the video adds several more layers.  The scenes that play out seem out of order and leave unresolved what happened, and the implied violence and the glimpses we get of the aftermath, the way the three characters move.... It haunts me, it burns itself into your gut and stays there the way the best art does.
Now, I don't think that I could ever run a game as intricate and impressive in its effects, but the style of game I'd prefer is definitely more Brando than Silly Bears.  Silly Bears is a song I think about every month or so, put on the album or just the song and enjoy.  Brando is a song I could listen to on a loop for 8 hours.  Seriously, when I got Soused last month there were several days where I just put the album on repeat and listen to it and only it all day at work, listened to it on the drive into work and the drive home from work.  Several days where the only time I wasn't listening to the album was when my long suffering girlfriend was with me or when I had to be in a meeting at work.  Full confession, I listened to Soused four times the day I wrote this post.

Now, I don't think I could pull my normal group from a lighter more Silly Bears game all at once into a Brando-esque game but it seemed a good illustration of how I, at least, perceive some of the difference in taste.  And an excuse to put up the two music videos.

So, what does the Antagonist Want?  I've been thinking about this a lot as I first struggled to move my games towards a more fulfilling GM experience for me, as I thought about starting up a new Planescape campaign, as I contemplated going on a break from GM'ing and now that I'm on my break and finding, of course, that I really can't stop thinking about running games.
What have I learned about what I'm looking for more of in my games?

  • Smaller groups
    • 6 players or fewer, with 6 as the max and 5 more the ideal.  The more I think about it, the more I prefer games with 4-5 players where I can better focus my attention and manage the players than to games with 7+ players.  And honestly, I'd rather run a game for 2-3 players than run a game for 7 players.  Thinking back on my Reign campaign, I think it would have been better with 5 PCs instead of 7, where I could have given each PC the plot and action they deserved, whereas I know with 7 PCs I didn't do a great job of putting the spotlight on all 7 characters.  
    • My noir-influence Fading Suns game was down to three PCs at the end, and that was still enjoyable to run each night.  And even my short-lived incredibly home-ruled Conan-style 4E game was only 2 PCs for the majority of its run and that worked well too.  But I know that when I had a 6th player join my Apocalypse World game I didn't do his character as much justice as I should have as my attention on keeping the narrative flowing smoothly suffered when I divided it 6 ways instead of just 5.  And when I helped the Ginger Giant co-DM the last arc of one of 4E D&D 1st Group, I much preferred the night we split the players into two groups and I was running for three players to the other sessions where there were 8 PCs to try and shepherd through combats.
  • Character Motivations Driving Plot
    • Some of the parts of Reign and Apocalypse World I've enjoyed the most have been when the PC motivations took the plot in directions I was not expecting.  Conversely, part of has kept me from enjoying the D&D I was running recently was trying to guess what would get the player's interests and not knowing what their PCs might actually want to do.  
  • Something a little more than Combat, combat, combat.
    • I was bored and sick a few weekends ago and played Diablo II for a day and then remembered why I haven't been going back to that game all that much lately.  Since I've beaten the game and know the plot it just feels like a grind of combats.  That was too much of my D&D DM'ing experience July-October.  Lots of move from one room (or location) to another and then hitting stuff (or shooting spells at stuff) until it falls down.  I do want a game that features a little more social interaction with NPCs, a little more investigation and exploration.  And also some encounters where the party decides to solve things without combat.
  • A Way Around Reflexive Rolling
    • This is something I've written about before and I have some ideas on what I'd like to try and do that I'll save for another post, but suffice to say I don't enjoy when players open a door and say "I roll perception" and expect me to describe the room at that point and know where they might be focusing their attention.  
    • Additionally, I don't enjoy the players seeing a magical sigil and saying "I roll Arcana, I got a 4 so I don't know anything" and preventing me from giving a baseline infodump (Wizard's would know *something* even if they don't know anything super useful) and because the character wouldn't know if they didn't know anything because (A) this is something new that no one's seen or (B) they just don't know anything on the topic and prevents me from (C) providing partial or partially incorrect information without the player knowing they got it just because they rolled a 1.
  • Slightly Less Silliness, or an agreed tone of Silliness at least
    • There's a time and place for humor in a game, and I know I'm guilty of introducing a masterwork magical hoe as treasure, but I do want to run games where the core of the characters and plot are serious.  This is probably more of a problem with the Drunk D&D one-shots I've run in the past, but it is something that I know tends to derail the games for me when combat or a scene come to a screeching halt for a minute or two.  
    • Although, when A Red and Pleasant Land comes out, I could be talked into a more whimsical game if the darkness matched the whimsy.  I have to admit I've been thinking of how you'd base characters on good old original Grimm's Brother's tales.
  • More Player Engagement
    • I don't necessarily need all my players to write journals the way many did for my Reign campaign, but it is disheartening to look up and see half the table on their cellphones.  I'm also hoping with new/restarted games to get more player buy in on the style of game, possibly even going so far as to coming up with a game constitution or charter as Thomas has discussed before.  Or even just getting them to do more of the work on party coherence so that it's less of my implementing that from above as a DM. Or working to really craft excellent character motivations...
  • Longer Play Sessions
    • This one is a wishlist item, though I think I'm going to propose a Second Sunday game day from 1-8 or 9 on every second Sunday (or every second and fourth Sunday if I get enough interest).  But part of my frustration with my Shattered Lands game was trying to run from 6:30 until 10:30 and having a player who couldn't make it until after 7, which would have been fine, but by the time he arrived we had usually only *just* begun playing and then another player needed to leave at 8:45 leaving me with less than two hours of time to run the game with all the players present, limiting a lot of the more plot/non-combat things I wanted to do.


  1. A few immediate thoughts:

    1) Maybe not every PC needs the same amount of attention. You might have 3 main characters and 2-3 supporting characters, and that's not wrong. Main characters might show up more often, and a session might still feature a supporting character some, but the main characters might drive things more. Its not even awful for more casual players to play different types of characters: animal companions, henchmen, surly brothers, friendly rivals, bound servants, etc. Some people are the Venture family, others are Shoreleave. Brock leaves for a month, Hatred shows up. Core cast and supporting cast.

    2) You might lose some players for a longer session slot. That's also ok. You pitch the game, and then people decide if they're into it or able to do it. Obviously people showing up late or leaving early is more conducive to a casual style. And maybe you can arrange for a casual game on other nights (whether you run it or not).

    3) Thinking short-term as well as long-term might be helpful. Proposing that long Sunday slot for two months (mid-Jan to mid-March) gives people a clear time frame to check for vacations and other commitments. You settle in for your couple longer sessions, and then you decide to follow up Villiage of Homlet with Temple of Elemental Evil if the players want to continue.

  2. Player investment when directly compared to DM/GM investment is difficult. When I have wanted to tell a tale or get a certain vibe across and tried to force it without fail it tends to detonate in my face. I think they have to buy into what you are looking to build, and then they have to have a hand directly in its creation. What I've come to realize in my time running games, running games with other people (yourself included), and playing in games (most of which you have run) is that if it isn't a collaborative effort, if there isn't that 'buy-in' then it won't last. GM/DMing is such an amazing creative and 'leadership' balancing act.

    As some one who you have run for a lot, I think you strike that balance extremely well 90% of the time, which is far more than the most of us can manage. I do find that I've come into a similar headspace though where I don't want to run something that feels like a chore; I'd like to leave my work at work please. It is a matter in the end of finding the right players, being dynamic and flexible enough to tweak the direction, but staying true enough to yourself to actually enjoy the process.

    And, I'll stop rambling now...Good post Z.


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