Wednesday, August 3, 2016

RPG Assumptions - A Tale of Two (Powered by the) Apocalypse Games - With Bonus Adventure Fronts!

Last month I ran two games, both Powered by the Apocalypse, in the first, a game of Viking World, I feel like the game ran aground a bit on some player assumptions so for the second, a game of Adventures on Dungeon Planet, I was upfront about the assumptions of the game and as a consequence it went much more smoothly. But the whole thing has had me thinking more about the assumptions that players and game masters bring to games.

Assumptions about the setting or style of game are nothing new to tabletop RPGs, the last two D&D Dungeon Master's Guides have addressed them, for instance, here are the assumptions the 5e DMG lays out.

  • Gods oversee the world
  • Much of the world is Untamed
  • The World Is Ancient
  • Conflict Shapes the World’s History
  • The World is magical

Now, those are the assumptions that the authors of the DMG put forth for a bog-standard generic D&D setting and they provide notes about tweaking or dispatching with them. But players often approach the games with assumptions of their own. I've been thinking about player assumptions for the better part of a month and here's a list of some player assumptions I run into with my group. (this isn't an exhaustive list, and in fairness to my players some of these I only notice because they're the ones I bump up against most, they can feel free to take issue if they want in the comments).

  • Helpful NPCs are friendly experts who are eager to help and share everything they know and have boundless in-game knowledge.
  • We’re the heroes, what we do is heroic even when its slaughtering foes who surrender or threatening captives with torture.
  • The extraordinary, and even the impossible, is easy as long as you roll high. AKA a natural 20=Wish Spell, right?
  • There is nothing like a little knowledge, there is only a lot of knowledge. If I know something about a topic, I should be able to know everything about it.
Now, I'll admit that some of those assumptions above might be ungenerous and colored by my frustrations, but I think that some of them have at least grains of truth behind them. They other thing I realized as I listed them out and obsessed over them for the past month is they seem to be colored by treating the table-top RPG as a game primarily and ignoring some of the fiction. What do I mean by that? Well, Powered by the Apocalypse games focus on putting the fiction first, here's how Dungeon World puts it, as taken from the Dungeon World SRD.

Playing Dungeon World means having a conversation; somebody says something, then you reply, maybe someone else chimes in. We talk about the fiction—the world of the characters and the things that happen around them. As we play, the rules will chime in, too. They have something to say about the world. There are no turns or rounds in Dungeon World, no rules to say whose turn it is to talk. Instead players take turns in the natural flow of the conversation, which always has some back-and-forth. The GM says something, the players respond. The players ask questions or make statements, the GM tells them what happens next. Dungeon World is never a monologue; it’s always a conversation.
The rules help shape the conversation of play. While the GM and the players are talking, the rules and the fiction are talking, too. Every rule has an explicit fictional trigger that tells you when it is meant to come into the conversation.
Moves are rules that tell you when they trigger and what effect they have. A move depends on a fictional action and always has some fictional effect. “Fictional” means that the action and effect come from the world of the characters we’re describing. In the move above the trigger is “when you attack an enemy in melee.” The effect is what follows: a roll to be made and differing fictional effects based on the outcome of the roll.
When a player describes their character doing something that triggers a move, that move happens and its rules apply. If the move requires a roll, its description will tell you what dice to roll and how to read their results.
A character can’t take the fictional action that triggers a move without that move occurring. For example, if Isaac tells the GM that his character dashes past a crazed axe-wielding orc to the open door, he makes the defy danger move because its trigger is “when you act despite an imminent threat.” Isaac can’t just describe his character running past the orc without making the defy danger move and he can’t make the defy danger move without acting despite an imminent threat or suffering a calamity. The moves and the fiction go hand-in-hand.
Now, my list of player assumptions is mostly from running D&D, I'll talk about the Viking World assumptions below, but it seems to me like many of the player assumptions I list above come from divorcing the fiction from the game. NPCs are treated like folders of information (or encyclopedic books) that can be consulted (as is in game character knowledge), the results of isolated die rolls are placed over, or perhaps seen as overriding, the fiction of the game and player character action is treated as if believing you're the hero should override the reactions of people you encounter. They seem to flow from treating the player characters and the dice as the final arbiters of the game instead of an important, but interwoven, part of the fiction. I also wonder if they don't come from habits gleaned from playing video game RPGs, where NPCs will spill all their beans as long as you complete the requisite number of asks and where the consequences of actions can be much more isolated and you can sometimes get away with being an asshole because the game still has the next NPCs you meet down the storyline programmed to treat you as an unblemished hero.

So Viking World... Originally I had been inspired by remembering Thomas' excellent Bachelor Viking D&D but wanted to take the low magic, high grit feel higher. This was also to entice the Maid of Honor at my wedding back to the table, since she and my wife have been obsessing over the Vikings TV show. I even went as far crafting eight different 5th level D&D PCs, painstakingly working them towards my low magic/high grit feel, typing up 2 page supplemental character sheets for each of those eight PCs and so forth (click here to see my drafted supplemental sheet for the Shield Maiden). So just a lot of work to try and evoke a very specific game play style... for what was probably going to end up being... a one shot game. It was also a time where I was feeling a little frustrated with running 5e D&D, so a few days before the game I told the players I was switching over to Viking World, an Apocalypse World hack. Now, I think the switch in rules sets was a good thing, the game suffered when I let myself drift into auto-pilot running it. Now some of this is to blame on my having been out late the night before to see SWANS, but some of it was my not doing a great job covering the assumptions of the game.

Back when it was going to be D&D, it had the easy pitch of D&D but with a Viking flavor, but with Viking World it got murkier. In hindsight, I should have seen if players wanted to play in a historical(ish) Scandinavia or a fantasy Midgard, but I was trying to treat it as a chance for the players to drive the setting and plot. So when I had thought that players were going to play Ragnar and Laergatha from the Vikings TV show, I was thinking they were going to play PCs inspired by Ragnar and Laergatha and not Ragnar and Laergatha... adding to the confusion, not all the players were familiar with the TV show. Now, I should have gone over the Viking World agendas....
MC Agendas:
fill the characters’ lives with dangerous opportunities and unsettling threats
play to see their destinies unfold
let them shape their world – or their world shape them
Player Agendas:
play your character like they are a real person
interact with the fictional world
pursue your destiny
...but I didn't. So we had a couple of players committing to playing Vikings the TV show the RPG and then players who weren't familiar with the show and then the group split along those lines exactly. See, on the show Ragnar has an entourage that includes a shipbuilder, so the player of Ragnar, running with the assumption that they were playing Vikings the TV show, put that character in their warband as an NPC. Meanwhile, the player  of the Craftyhead (the Viking World version of the Apocalypse World Savvyhead) had taken Shipbuilding as one of his proficiencies, so we ended up with two boats and neither side would budge because one side was playing Vikings the TV show (Vtv from here on out) and Floki had a boat and that was an important part of Floki and the other side had a boat and that was important because he'd given up other options off his ship to be damned good at boat building. Then we had two "Travel Unexplored Reaches" rolls when the Vtv players talked the rest of the group into raiding England (just like Vtv) and the Vtv players got snake eyes and didn't make it and had to turn back. So we had the non-Vtv players rampage through a monastery and then end up losing a fight to some Anglo-Saxons after and limp off with their bruised war band after. Meanwhile the Vtv side prepped to go back to England and eventually did, though again, their "Travel Unexplored Reaches" roll wasn't great, so it took them a while. Though, when they made it back to England we got to another assumption from the Vtv group as it was assumed Athelstan (ya know, from Vtv, so exactly from the show) would be able to look at a bit of English coastline and tell his thane exactly where in England they were, another assumption that the NPCs were there to be perfectly useful to the PCs.

The two groups met up as the non-Vtv group was being stalked by a large and angry band of Anglo-Saxons and tried to talk the others into leaving without provoking a fight but Vtv, sticking to the Ragnar of the TV series, wanted to parlay with the Anglo-Saxons, never-mind that they'd spent a week tracking down the other band of vikings to avenge the raids they'd suffered and never-mind that that they outnumbered the Norsemen nearly 3 to 1 and were fresh and uninjured. A battle ensued, one of the PCs, the Runecaster, died due to a series of unlucky rolls and then the players and their warbands limped back home.

Then I let things drag a little too long before getting the players hooked on some missing kids and a potential supernatural threat and the game sorta fizzled as it got late and we all got tired and the energy died down. But now before the Craftyhead player asked if he could craft mountain goat like boots or shoes for them to wear on the mountain quickly, to which I said no, that would require time and testing, and he was slightly miffed, and I realized that I had not set realistic expectations for the players for what was possible in the fiction of the game.

So overall, still a fun game, and glad I went Viking World instead of D&D, though I wish I'd set the expectations/assumptions/agenda better at the start and maybe started with the supernatural mystery instead of the raiding to better establish the fiction of the game as separate from the fiction of Vtv.

So for the next Friday, when I ran my Adventures on Dungeon Planet game, I made sure I was very specific on the assumptions I was using to run the game, to wit:
  • SPACE! Is dangerous
  • The EARTH is far away
  • The PCs have been on the ZDARKSY for 3-6 months
    • Who’s the captain of the ZDARSKY?
    • Is it in the hands of its original owner or captain, or was it stolen and rechristened? 
  • TECHNOLOGY is what the 1950’s expected of the year 2016 so something that is MICRO might be the size of a backpack. RADIO is the hot technology, not cellular wireless. 
  • The REPTILOIDS are craven but crafty foes who are trying to CONQUER the GALAXY but are hindered by their TRIBAL organization
This helped set the very pulpy tone of the game, I think, helped by my original pitch:
The intrepid ship, Zdarsky, has crashed on the dangerous and deadly S’sss’sss, Planet of the REPTILOIDS! Now the crew must scavenge for parts to repair their ship while avoiding the aforementioned savage and mammal hating Reptiloids, as well as Fur Crabs, Carnivorous Trees and even the dread and terrifying Scorpion Pigs!

In any case, seeing how setting up some assumptions with Adventures on Dungeon Planet helped keep the game more on the rails as opposed to my very vague Viking World game where I left everything unspoken and let player assumptions take it in wildly divergent directions, is going to be on my mind as I wrap up my D&D campaign and move my Wednesday group over to a Numenera mini-campaign. I've already got a list of things I want to make sure everyone is on the same page about before we start so that we all share a good idea of what the fiction of the game is about and allows.
It'll be interesting to see if anyone chimes in down in the comments, either about assumptions they realize they bring to RPGs or ones they see their players bring in or if they disagree about the assumptions I identified in my own player group.

1 comment:

  1. Rereading this, is also reminds me a bit of things like the dwarven personalities and drow traits from our Double Dungeon. When people have a clearer goal of what the game will be like and their characters, I think they do better. I don't do nearly as many pick-up games as you, but maybe you want more of a standard advertisement: pitch (+why it'll be fun), assumptions, character types, etc.


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