Thursday, April 15, 2010

Some thoughts on a Glen Cook novel

I might sound like a broken record (imagine how some youngsters wont understand that expression!), but I have once again been thinking about campaign frames, story and player influence.

Recently I finished a novel by Glen Cook, A Shadow of All Night Falling. It had a sad ending, where the fates of nations and individuals were intertwined. Some people sacrificed a lot and it wasn't very clear if they really got what they wanted. Now, imagine that happening in a rpg campaign.

As a GM you can set up the potential for this high drama. You can show the powers that be to your players by exposing them to NPC's and hope they interact enough to show the motives and the personality flaws of everyone involved. What you can't do is making the players take a stance. They might do, or they might not. Sure, you can set it all up so that they player characters have some emotional or other investment in a faction, but it's still not sure. Looking at that potential and not knowing if it will fizzle of not, I can understand the lure of heavy handed story railroading.

As I read that book I thought it would have been great to have been the player in a campaign that ended thus. I wonder if it can be done, nicely, in a way that I'd enjoy? I'm not sure. The John Wick game, Houses of the Blooded, tries to do that  by making the players help build the narrative and the intrigue. I guess that should help create some enthusiasm. Hmm.


  1. Honestly, my knee-jerk reaction is to say no, it really can't be done without the sort of massive railroading folks don't usually accept at the table. You might get lucky and find a group of players eager to help steer the game towards that sort of ending by their actions, but otherwise you'll have to constrain their choices to an extent more often seen in computer RPGs.

    But having an end in mind is very much not my style of gaming, so I could quite easily be missing some obvious option that would make it possible. Best of luck in your search.

  2. Yeah, I do find it problematic, and my heart say "no" as well.

    While it can happen spontaneous, it would be nice if it could be engineered, somehow with the consent of the players.

    I think having an end in mind might be the wrong idea, come to think of it. Maybe it will happen if the things happening are intertwined enough?

    The search goes on...

  3. Early Glen Cook novels were are a bit of a downer, that's for sure. The whole Dread Empire series is pretty rough, really.

    As far as re-creating the tone and tragedy in a game, I think the best you can hope for is to create a complex gamespace where the actions of the PC's have serious in-game consequences, then hope that the tragedy occurs naturally.

    It is important to distinguish between "deciding that an event will happen" and "railroading" though. Railroading assumes that the event will happen, and that the characters will be involved - pushing the characters there by hook or crook.

    You can still have events happen, but the stance, or outlook of the characters will determine how important the events are to the characters. The death of a major person or the fall of a castle may be a "meh" moment, or a major personal tragedy for the characters. For the DM, it's hard to allow it to be a "meh" moment - but doing so makes the times that it's a major personal tragedy much more worthwhile.

  4. Well put. Engagement of the players should allow serious and involved things to happen. Maybe a "complex gamespace" and some hints of how actions have consequences will work together to make it happen.

    I really liked the early Black Company stories, but am not sure how I like Dread Empire so far. Some are good.

  5. Well, it's a helluva lot easier to write "Complex gamespace" and "actions have consequences" then it is to actually make it so. That takes a lot of work, and masterful ability to to improv.

    Possibly using something like Freemind and creating a bunch of if/then options with an UNLESS hook for the characters would allow you to create a framework for this sort of thing without really railroading.

    You'd still have to be willing to let a lot of your precious material go by with just a "meh". Which is not fun for most of us aspiring-writer DM's. Wanting people to stare at your shiny is probably the root of the railroading impulse.

    Heh - maybe that's the rule #1 for the aspiring dramatic sandboxer: "Thine material shalt go largely unappreciated".

  6. I think the complex gamespace is what many of us generate when the impulse for world building comes over us. :)

    The problem is utilizing it, and as you say, most of it "shalt go largely unappreciated".

    Freemind sounds familiar.

  7. Freemind is a mind-mapping software that lets you create really complex, sprawling association maps. It's handy for this sort of event-based design. I use Masterplan for something similar, but that tool is designed for 4e, so it's not useful for everybody.

  8. I like the Dread Empire books much more than the Black Company - they feel more mature to me, and a more skillful blend of the human and the mythic. The world of the books would be a wonderful place to set a campaign.

    When I was younger I would have agreed with you about the temptation of heavy-handed roleplaying, and the related temptation of concealing GM manipulation of the game. These days all I can think about is how much I hate that stuff as a player. I would rather trust the group as a whole to come up with a story we all enjoy, and use a system that permits that.

    If I feel the people I'm playing with can't make a story that satisfies me, then we should play another game, or I should find another group. That, actually, is why I left Lisa Padol's Cthulhupunk pbem after two years, even though I liked my character so much he's still my icon :)

    And you have a pretty good example in your own experience! Beyond the Mountains of Madness as written is highly railroaded - I speak of the plot; I don't consider the journey-format to be railroading. And I did nudge it in a couple of places early on (and felt conflicted about doing so), mostly to bring off a particular encounter that I thought would be cool.

    But I had a distaste for this, and pushed myself hard to let you guys do your own thing. And by the time you reached Lake's camp, you were running your own show. And it had an awesome ending! One totally not allowed for in the scenario. My only regret is that Wesley wasn't with us at the end.

    So I definitely come down on the side of Trust Your Group. When I make up adventures and campaigns these days, I deliberately don't think about the solution - I just concentrate on making a gripping set of conflicts that will appeal to the players, which means that we all get involved in making up the conflicts.

  9. Yes, you can do it. I did, once, when I GM'ed a Traveller campaign. It didn't take railroading either; you're right that that would have killed the experience. But it require me trusting my players.

    Looong story short, it involved one of those classic Classic-Traveller situations involving rival interstellar governments and a poor primitive planet stuck in the middle. The players were standard Traveller mercenaries at the start; but one of them decided he wanted to be a *native* of that planet. And beautifully, without my doing a thing, he chose to side with the on-planet rebels in secret defiance of his mercenary contract. And another member of the group chose to call up an interested megacorp; then a third, sensing mischief but unaware of the source, contacted Imperial intelligence... As GM, I forgot about my intended plot entirely and let it go, with secret messages, side meetings; the whole thing playing out like a Dune novel. It was clear that only one side could possibly win.

    See, what made it work was that the players made the drama. It wasn't forced on them or told to them. They chose what to do and lived with the choices. And when one character was finally betrayed-- as he had to be-- the player really felt it. The character stood among the burning ruins of his ambition, abandoned by his allies as the vultures closed in... There was anger at the table, but it stayed at the table and in the characters.

  10. Awesome story Dave! I wish I could rely on the Trust Your Group mentality. Sometime I wish for some game system steering there.

    I've been thinking about a radical recruitment drive for a while now. Maybe it's time.


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