Respect the Character, p2

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Part 2 of 2, by Trent Yacuk

In between the huge and the small, there are many standard ways to give respect to the characters. If the big strong character wants to smash open a door, does it really matter to the story if they do or do not? As a GM you can acknowledge that they are very strong and only because of that, do they break the door down. The Halfling player in turn won’t likely expect that such a courtesy will be given to her. She’ll understand that to kick the door down, she’ll need a roll.

You can also, as a GM, look at what the player put into his character and develop that as an important part of the story. A good author of a book or a show does not even mention that a character is an excellent painter unless there is a reason for it. The character’s artistic skill will become useful at some point and, if acknowledged prior to that point, shows that it wasn’t just ‘random’. A GM can use that. If a character dumps points into a Swim skill, you as a GM should put an encounter where that Swim skill becomes important. And maybe not just once but a few times. It lets that character be the hero of the moment. It gives the player something that they can do that nobody else is better at. And since you put that in just for them, if they roll the ‘1’ on their Swim check, hinder them a little but don’t make them have an ‘epic fail’.

Some people will argue that everybody can fail at things. But that isn’t entirely the point. Real life people fail at stuff all the time. Fictional characters that we read and watch fail only when it’s appropriate to the story. You wouldn’t read a story where the character got into a car accident and then had to recover afterwards if the accident wasn’t in some fashion relevant to the story (whether the recovery changes the character or the lack of car makes for funny hijinx later). For your game, in which you are there to entertain everybody, failing isn’t a lot of fun for the players. And failing at something that really should be second nature for them comes across as very lacklustre. The more that happens, the more the character is just a collection of stats. But when a character becomes truly interesting and allows a player to invest more into their character, is when what the character is good at isn’t always defined on the sheet. A beginning Druid might only have a “+6 to their Survival skill” but by virtue of the fact that they choose the Druid character to play, their Survival skills should simply have more meaning than the Rogue’s +6 Survival skill. Maybe a failed roll by the Druid just means that they get the job done, but it takes them longer than it normally should have. Whereas a failed roll on the Rogue’s part certainly indicates failure.

Respecting the character is a vital skill. I’ve used it to enormous success. It has always paid off in full because the players get more invested in their role and less so in their stats. And in turn, when a player is invested in their character more, they become invested in the story more. And then everybody walks away entertained.

Trent Yacuk is an independent game developer who has after several years, hundreds of playtesting sessions in several cities across Canada and relentless badgering from his peer group of zealously committed players come to the final edit on his beloved roleplaying game centered around angels, demons and the eternal war.

Respect the Character, p1

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Part 1 of 2, by Trent Yacuk

“I’m a Druid? How did I get lost in the woods?”

“Well, you failed your roll…”

No Game Master is perfect. All GMs need improvement. The art of GMing takes years of practice. There are skills that can be learned and mastered, like any art.

Of all the skills that should be understood the most important is a simple one, yet I’ve seen it forgotten and abused and abandoned by the side of the road too many times to count. It’s the skill of respect.

Every player sits down at your game and makes a character in hopes of achieving something. Some players want story. Some players want a ‘role’ (just to role-play their character). Some players want to kick ass and take names. It is absolutely crucial for a GM to figure out what each of their players is looking for. What is the purpose of the character they’ve constructed for the game? I’ve seen detailed instructions for how to deal with all ‘types’ of players (the power gamer, the role player, the quiet type, etc) but they seem to be missing the point to some degree. They explain how to deal with these player types, but fail to address why you are dealing with them.

It’s all about respect. Ultimately, the role of the GM is to entertain your friends. And while some GMs think that their story is so great that it can’t fail to entertain, they may be missing the point. Because the players are there for their character, not for your story. Your story is just the path for their characters, the medium through which they can play their persona.

Once the GM realizes this, they should then realize that respecting the player and the character is paramount to their story. And it’s a surprisingly easy skill to master, because it really is as simple as recognizing what the players and characters want, what they came to do and then give it to them.

It can be very simple sometimes, as simple as giving that character a mention: “Normally, the party would never have found shelter this late at night in the rain, but because you have a Druid with you, you can all thank her for her wisdom. She finds a perfect hollow tree for you to camp in.”

That is respect. That is giving praise to a character. And as small as it is, it’s those little things that the player may appreciate. And if respect is used throughout the story, in large or small fashion, the players will enjoy your story all that much more.

Respect is simply giving the players and their characters moments of glory, in which they get to be the hero, the saviour, the action star. How many players make a fighter (tank) character in hopes of getting that one day, just one day, when everyone else has to run while they get to stand at the bottleneck and hold the waves of enemies back? How many cunning rogues or wizards want to wait patiently until the end of the Big Bad’s speech, to which they counter, “That’s very impressive…but you forgot to take one thing into account. That’s not the real relic that you’re holding…”

They can be as small as preventative maintenance, such as making the assumption that a Druid or Ranger is not stupid enough to get lost in the woods. Or that the Shadowrun gun bunny knows that it’s absolutely impossible for him to get a single gun through customs, so obviously, he wouldn’t even try. It’s taking things into account that show that the character wouldn’t fail at something that is so routine for them, regardless of whether the system wants a dice roll.

Trent Yacuk is an independent game developer who has after several years, hundreds of playtesting sessions in several cities across Canada and relentless badgering from his peer group of zealously committed players come to the final edit on his beloved roleplaying game centered around angels, demons and the eternal war.

Immersion vs. #’s, p3

Part 3 of 3, by Brian Kindregan

Immersion is a very personal experience and different things work for different people, so I thought I’d close by looking at the three main types of RPG I play. Sandbox, World Simulator and Story.

  1. Sandbox. I love the GTA games, and played Vice City until my eyes bled. You can do anything! They really build a complete environment that you can play around in, and it grabs you. This is the only game that has made me afraid to drive after playing, because I catch myself gauging good pedestrian targets, wondering exactly how they’d go into ragdoll physics if I hit them. But while the games have a story, I never really place myself in the character’s shoes, and I never forget I am playing a game. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation.
  2. World Simulator. The Elder Scrolls games are also deeply engrossing. I have lost many hours of my life to leveling my athletics skill. These games are so vast, and so complex. They can be frustrating. Anyone out there ever get turned into a vampire halfway through a Morrowind play through? But the developers go to great lengths to make this feel like a real world, where your actions have consequences. It is a bit like a sandbox, but you can really mess it up. However, the fact that this world feels so real makes up for any frustration to me, because I can start to really believe in this place and in my character. There is a story intertwined in the game, but it is so easy to lose your way, or to break your story, that the narrative takes a back seat to just being a part of the world. Once again, not a criticism, just an observation.
  3. Story based games. I’m going to sound biased here, because this is BioWare’s main strength. However, I am not biased toward story-based games because I work at BioWare. Rather, I work at BioWare because I am biased toward story-based games. I have to start this discussion by creating two subcategories: Story-driven and character-driven.
    1. Story-driven games. To me, Mass Effect is a story game. It has fun and interesting characters. They were very good and I think the community’s reaction to them shows that they feel like real people, but there was something about the game that was stronger still – its story. The thing that kept me glued to my controller was wondering “What’s going to happen next? What’s that Saren guy up to? Why are the geth working for him? How’s Shepard going to convince that silly council about the things he knows?” (Note how I got through that without any spoilers?) This is very compelling stuff to me, and I fall so deeply into it that I forget the real world. I think about different possibilities for how it will play out, what it means. I run around the ship and talk to my party members because I want to know what they think about all these goings on. I wonder if I can really trust Liara when her own mother is working for the other side. That’s immersion.
    2. Character-driven games. To me, Baldur’s Gate I and II were really about the characters. The story was very good – I believed in the story of those games. I thought about the story and its ramifications when I wasn’t playing, but the thing that dominated my playtime was simply hanging out with Minsc and Boo, and watching Minsc bicker with Edwin — it was like hanging out with friends. “Oh Edwin, you goofy mage, you’re in a woman’s body now.” “Oh, Xan, you managed to die before the game even auto-paused at an enemy sighting!” “Minsc… you’re… well, you’re Minsc.” I think that is the greatest magic an RPG can conjure, when some pixels, variables, stats and voice over can equal a real person in your mind, a person you want to know better and hang out with. When I near the end of a great character-driven game I get the same troubled feeling that I do toward the end of a giant, character driven novel – I only have so much time left with these characters, and I want more.
      To me, that is total immersion. That’s the illusion I want to believe in, and I avoid anything that will destroy that.
  4. The best scenario of course is when the characters and story are completely in sync. And that happens for a while in many games. It’s something that we as an industry must always be working on, in my opinion, finding a way to meld the two into one seamless experience. Speaking of which, I’d better get back to work!

    Brian Kindregan served in 7th Special Ops group of the US military before working as a director and storyboard artist in the film business in Los Angeles, CA, for 15 years. He is a Senior Writer on the Mass Effect franchise, and wrote on Jade Empire.

Immersion vs. #’s, p2

Part 2 of 3, by Brian Kindregan

An example and a question for you!

So do I avoid looking at the numbers? Unfortunately, no. If they’re easily available in game, I have to look. Sometimes I try not to… but they’re right there! So I’ll take an example of a hard fight I did on two separate play throughs of Mass Effect. (I did not work on the first game so it was all fresh and new to me.) The Matriarch Benezia fight is generally considered tough. The first time I played the game on the regular difficulty setting, I wasn’t looking at numbers carefully. This was the extent of my numerology: “Oh this thing makes my bullets do more damage. So does that one but it has a IV after the name… I’ll use that one.” It was a tough fight, and frustrating. I had to try different strategies, some madcap schemes and even a few hail-maries. (Hail Mary +2!) Finally I downed her and moved on with my game, secure in the illusion that this was all real. The second time through, on veteran difficulty, I one shotted her. (In the sense that Shepard and both of my squad members each did one action then she was dead. Maybe that’s three shotting.) The difference? I’d looked at all the numbers carefully and designed a strategy around that. (The second play through was months later, so I didn’t remember what had worked the first time.) Did that make it less satisfying? No. But did it make it more satisfying? No. I still killed her the same. I couldn’t win more than I had the other way, just quicker. (And, uh, with no reloads.) But I didn’t think any of it was real. Benezia was a boss at the end of a level.

So am I saying that those who look at numbers are robbing themselves of enjoyment? No, because it’s your game, you paid for it, you should play it the way you that brings you the most fun. There is certainly no “right” way to play an RPG. But it made me wonder, have you (yes you! The one reading this!) ever tried switching your modus operandi?

Have you, the immersion player, ever tried dissecting the numbers, min-maxing, maxing out and generally upping your pwnage attribute? Attacked it like a puzzle? Decided that you will make your character/party a force of nature? (Er, if nature were a collection of really good numbers that is.)

Have you, the numbers player, ever tried playing the RPG game like a story? Stressed out about what will happen to the hostage if you fail this quest? Done things that didn’t bring you more XP because it was what your character would really do? Or what (gasp) you would really do? Reacted with more emotion than calculation?

Are they mutually exclusive?

Brian Kindregan served in 7th Special Ops group of the US military before working as a director and storyboard artist in the film business in Los Angeles, CA, for 15 years. He is a Senior Writer on the Mass Effect franchise, and wrote on Jade Empire.

Immersion vs. #’s, p1

Part 1 of 3, by Brian Kindregan

So I’m leading a troop of Grim-mages across the wastes of D’rann when we get dive bombed by the Nalmerre aliens in their swooping zagoid ships. They’re raining chain bombs down on us and my Grim-mages quickly begin an ancient and dread chant…

Or maybe I’m actually staring at an array of tiny lights that are either red, green or blue. And maybe those lights are controlled by a much vaster array of numbers that are either one, zero or in the process of changing from one to the other.

Which version of reality do you prefer?

I think most people would prefer the version with the Grim-mages and the chain bombs. (Not everyone though!) So that’s an easy one, but let’s make it a bit harder.

Would you rather know that the ancient and dread chant summons a massive lava spew from the ground that will hurt many of the zagoid ships, or that the spell in question will do 100 to 300 damage to all enemy units in its area of effect? Would you rather know that Grim-mages are very crafty when dealing with flying opponents, or that the Grim-mage unit gets +6 to defense when fighting airborne units? Now we’re forming up on opposite sides of a line in the sand. (Let’s fight! Just kidding – the numbers guys would put a +4 beat down on my team.)

I want to be immersed, I want to feel that this is real. And real life does sometimes have numbers to help you. Often times it does not. This car may get better mileage than that one, but which one will make you feel safer/faster/sexier? This piece of fruit may have a longer shelf life than that one, but which one will taste better later this afternoon? There’s lots of guessing, intuition and dumb mistakes.

I’m not suggesting that games should emulate real life. I wouldn’t play games if they did. But knowing too many numbers, too much of the inner workings, takes away from the illusion. Each time I use a plus or minus in reference to my Grim-mages a little bit more of the illusion crumbles. True, it can be frustrating when a tooltip describes an attack as ‘powerful’ then you use it and it is underwhelming – are you using it wrong? Or does the tooltip writer guy have a different definition of ‘powerful’ than you? But it feels real, and that’s hard to come by.

Game designers have to think in terms of numbers all the time, and then they have to try to forget all that and see the game from the other side: imagine what it would feel like if they didn’t know all numbers. Certainly, I find it hard to believe that a character I’m talking to in a game is real, (even a game I didn’t work on.) I’ll sit there and say “Ah ha! A variable is being set now.” Or “Oh, he’s giving me the same canned speech – the designer didn’t consider what would happen if I came back with only half the quest items and took my pants off before talking to him.” (Don’t try that at home.) But when I’m playing a game designed and written by someone really good at their craft, I can get swept up and think “This Lord Menomarre is a !” or “Man, this alien lady is really intriguing – what the heck is she going to say next?”

Brian Kindregan served in 7th Special Ops group of the US military before working as a director and storyboard artist in the film business in Los Angeles, CA, for 15 years. He is a Senior Writer on the Mass Effect franchise, and wrote on Jade Empire.