On the topic of milestones, with a discussion of how to make games great
If anyone was paying attention, this entry marks my first month on this blog. It’s an interesting goal to have achieved, in that the goals that I set for myself were a little strange – post an entry every single day, make sure that it was more than 1,000 words, and hold to a particular level of quality for the topics. I can’t claim that I hit the last one out of the park each time, but at least I gave it a shot. It’s good to have goals. We’ll see where I’m at with the daily postings within a year, but for the time being, it’s going well enough.
So, what in an RPG relates to a milestone, even one so minor as this one?
How about that game that people talk about for years after the end? You know the one, whether it’s the one that just wrapped after two years of solid play or the one from back in high school that was so much lightning in a bottle. What was it that made that game stand out over all the other ones? What was it that made that game come up in conversation with new gamers, especially when your old players talk about the kind of game they want to see in their new group?
For me, there are a scattering of epic games, ranging over a spectrum of gaming experience and widely disparate systems. For the purposes of dissection, I’ll stick to the ones that I ran, as I have a better idea of the common threads that wove through the lot of them. If nothing else, I know what sort of things I tried to hold fast to over the course of the game and how I think they added to the overall game.
In specific, the campaigns I’m going to be referencing were played in Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, Torg and Exalted. Each of the games were played with groups that I had established some time before I launched the game, so I knew the players well enough to be able to play to their specific strengths within the game.
Ascension of Darkness: For Dungeons & Dragons, it was a 2nd Edition game set in Ravenloft. The game actually started as a regular hack and slash sort of game that was drastically altered when the group was pulled into the Mists. Once there, they encountered a number of strange horrors and watched as their wizard was slowly pulled into darkness by the Powers of Ravenloft. Advised by an ally, they sought an ancient machine that was said to be able to pull the darkness directly from her soul.
Death of Shadows: For Star Wars, it was an old WEG D6 game set in the outer rim during the rise of the New Republic. The characters began to encounter the machinations of a shadowy Dark Jedi who sought to enslave the uncharted territories and cast entire systems into darkness. Along the way, the characters were forced to act as agents of an Imperial Inquisitor and put an end to the Jedi’s plans.
The End Days: For Torg, the game was set before the invasion of Earth had started. The characters were FBI special agents tasked with investigating the stranger cases to cross their director’s desk. Sold as an X-Files game, things devolved rapidly when the agents ran afoul of cyberdemons in disguise, invading agents seeking to plunder rare archaeological treasures, and pacts with dark powers. While they managed to thwart one of the invading forces, they were caught in a warzone when the full force of an invading reality dropped into New York city.
Oblivion’s Talon: For Exalted, the game started off as a Mortals game, with the characters being pressed into a Legion culled from the prisons of the Blessed Isle. From their origins as the lowest of the low, they discovered an untouched city from the First Age, learned the cursed history of the former rulers, and found themselves ascending as Solars, reincarnated from the histories they were studying.
1.) The conflict was fully sketched out at the beginning.
This is one of the largest pieces of this particular puzzle. Whenever I sat down to plan a game of particular scope, I tried to nail down what the stakes were for both sides. Often, with games of a large enough scale, I tend to work backwards, planning out the final battle as best I can and figuring out how to get the characters to that point. Sometimes, it’s just a single scene I’m working towards, but I know exactly how I want to have that moment play out, so I have plenty of time to lay the groundwork to get everyone there.
In Death of Shadows, the nascent empire of the dark jedi was already in full swing, and the characters were slow to get the memo. They were coming at the plot unawares, and every weird event that was encountered reinforced the growing dread. I already knew how the final battle was going to be staged, so I could push the characters towards this final destiny.
2.) There was enough foreshadowing to establish that things were going very wrong.
For me, planning out the conflict has a secondary objective in giving me an idea of what sort of background events are moving things to their inevitable end. If there’s any sort of mysticism in the game (pretty standard, given), this can take the form of prophecy. Otherwise, there are going to be inexplicable events that will tie together once the characters have a better idea of the plot that’s already in motion.
In the Ascension of Darkness, the characters were given a scattering of prophecies and weird dreams that spoke of the coming betrayal and fall of the party. Being that this was the first time any of my players had ever been confronted with something of this sort, they were vaguely horrified by what they were piecing together, and it drew them into the plot even in their down time.
3.) The campaign was built around the characters.
In some ways, this is probably the most important thing, as far as the players are concerned. If there’s any perception that things would happen the same way without these specific characters, the players don’t have the same investment. But when it’s noted that none of this would have happened if the characters hadn’t gotten involved, the players dive directly into the plot to try to take control of things. There was also a very specific character arc that each player engaged in for their character. In each of the games, the characters started out as fairly basic archetypes that grew into their respective destinies.
The strongest example of this was the Oblivion’s Talon game, as the characters had First Age antecedents that they were learning about. There was some question as to which living character corresponded with which ancient Solar, but it was pretty clearly drawn that they were revisiting the hubris and character flaws that had doomed their predecessors.
4.) The characters were faced with difficult moral choices, to the point that whichever direction they chose would influence both the course of the game and the evolution of their role-playing.
Going hand in hand with the previous bit, the characters directly alter the direction of events by choosing their own moral compass. If they choose to play the moral paragons, the game shifts to reflect that in the way things move forward. Or at least, I would assume so. In all of the games I’m using as examples, there were multiple points when the characters chose an easier path, and the plot reacted accordingly. By choosing an evil direction, they made things easier in the short term while watching the long term struggles grow harder.
The End Days game had pretty clear examples of this, either in the form of the FBI agent who got involved with the high school student at the cost of his engagement, or the other agent who sought eldritch power through ritualistic sacrifice. There were notable short term advantages to both of these character arcs, but the end result was that these choices doomed other aspects of the plot. This was also very clearly drawn in the Oblivion’s Talon game, as they knew what mistakes had been made in their previous incarnations, and they could see the parallels in their current characters.
5.) There were pervasive themes that endured throughout the course of the game.
Consistency in setting has always served me well. By establishing the feel of the world and sticking to that feel even as things began to go off the rails, I was able to build a world and a plot that held together well enough that the players could concentrate on playing their characters and fitting them into that world.
With the Death of Shadows game, there was the establishing theme of the Star Wars universe, balanced against the recurring elements of a growing darkness. Since they were dealing with dark jedi, part of it was symbolically reinforced and part was the actual effect of darkness on the characters they encountered.
6.) The setting was fully established before anything else happened in the game in terms of the larger plot.
This goes back to my post on Establishing the Color of the Rug, but it’s worth repeating here. In each of these games, I made a point of getting all of the players on board as far as the world that they were adventuring in. In some games, it was easier than others, but no matter where things started, I made a point to have everyone comfortable in what the world was supposed to be before larger concerns started to manifest themselves.
As far as The End Days game went, I had sold the game as being fairly X-Files in nature, which allowed the players to create the characters as archetypal FBI agents. They knew that things were going to reflect the weird of the source material I’d given them, so their characters were credulous of occasional weird things, even though they had no idea how far the plot was going to take them.
7.) The prologue of the game lasted long enough that it seemed like it was the focus of the game.
Part of the ability to establish the world was due to the fact that the players believed that the game was much smaller in scale than it really was. If I had made a point of selling the game idea as being the vast and epic adventure that it became, there would have been far too much anticipation on the part of the players to allow them to immerse themselves in the mundane aspects of the world. And by doing so, they were allowed to have characters of relatively humble origin that became heroes of legend.
When I first proposed the Oblivion’s Talon game, it was taking the idea of reinforcing some of the mechanical aspects of Exalted by forcing the players to create wholly non-powered Mortals in a meat grinder setting. If they didn’t learn the mechanics the way they needed to, they stood no chance of survival whatsoever. And while their time as Mortals before they became Solars was relatively brief overall, it was long enough to make them think it was a permanent thing.
8.) The course of the game played to the strengths of both the players and the GM, in terms of knowing the setting and the characters.
Over the course of the extended prologue, the players grew to know their characters and what made them tick, moreso than if they’d been dropped into a huge and unknowable plot with freshly generated characters. As a counterpart to this, I made a point of running games in settings that I knew backwards and forwards. There was a lot of planning as far as the plot went, but since I already knew the setting, I could add necessary color and believability to things, allowing the characters to sink into the world that much easier.
With Death of Shadows, it was a matter of knowing how the plots I had in mind fit into the Star Wars milieu and making them work along those guidelines. Knowing the Star Wars setting as well as I do, I made a point to breathe life into the setting at every turn, making it so the players could easily envision what they were dealing with.
9.) The NPC’s had very specific agendas, making them realistic enough that the PC’s understood them even if they didn’t trust them.
Sooner or later, I’ll have to dedicate an entry to the golden rule of villains – in my games, they never lie to the player characters. In addition to that, the NPC’s, villains or otherwise, have fairly carefully constructed motivations that drive them through the plot. Whenever the PC’s encountered their nemeses, they’d be able to gain an understanding of why the character was acting the way they were, even if it was directly counter to the efforts of the player characters. In some ways, the arguments would be persuasive enough to cause a moment of doubt or worse within the characters. (Hence the difficult moral choices above.)
This was a necessity in the Ascension of Darkness game, as the main villain was also the closest ally of the characters within the setting of Ravenloft. The twist came in the fact that, by dividing the wizard’s soul into good and evil manifestations, the evil half would instantly ascend as a Dark Lord. And by manipulating the characters to this end, the ally guaranteed his own ascension as well. In the Oblivion’s Talon game this took the form of an Abyssal Death Knight that the characters encountered. He bore the corrupted essence of one of their First Age allies, but he had no compunction to help them in any way that didn’t benefit himself.
10.) The game ended.
In some ways, this is the part that mattered the most for several of the games. There were other games that I could have placed in the tally sheet for legendary games, but for one reason or another, they never got to satisfactory point where they could end. There is also the danger in games like this for a game to persist after the main plots have been brought to an end. This runs the risk of ruining a game’s reputation by having it linger too long, undoing the epic nature of things by involving the characters in plots that aren’t of the same scale.
Each of the games I referenced ended, and in doing so, the players were free to narrate their places in the new world that dawned on the aftermath of their deeds. In each of the games, there were vague efforts made to continue the adventures of the favorite characters, but this was more because of the desire to keep these old friends together than anything else. There was a definitive closure to their tales of heroism, and in doing so, there was a sense that it could take its place with any conceived work of fiction. And as they always say, it’s best to leave the audience wanting more. The same thing applies to games.
And for my one month milestone, a double-length post to commemorate it. I shudder to see what a year will bring me, if it isn’t inevitable burnout.