Monday, February 07, 2011

The Game's the Thing: Experience in Multiple Techniques

For players, experience is a very simple thing; it's a bridge from the baby's first badass of their new character to the final boss battle badass that always seems inevitable just a few sessions before the campaign falls apart. It's a measure of progress and a return on their investment on having fun. What's the reward for playing your Batman-themed player character? Playing a better Batman-themed player character. For the min/maxers, it's bragging rights. For serious roleplayers, it's their character's mastery over things which have previously alluded them. For smartass snarkers, it's a license to snark to slightly more dangerous NPCs. For social roleplayers, it's...actually kind of a hassle.

For storytellers, leveling is a matter of control. Lower level characters can be fragile, while higher-level characters can be hard to challenge. During the end of the classic Aberrant Team Chronos Campaign, more than one powerful, never-heard-of-before nova popped up to challenge the characters. More than one is too many, really, and it was largely because of the campaign's upward-spiraling experience point rewards. In addition to the narrative/setting facet, experience, like the system your game uses, is a way to influence players' behavior. Yes, everyone is there to have fun; if someone rolls handfuls of dice to take out villains that have no impact on the story while another intensely converses with another, similarly irrelevant, NPC with their best subtle and manipulative dialog, then there's nothing wrong with this story, provided both of those players enjoy what their characters are doing. People do enjoy hitting guideposts in stories to give the illusion they're accomplishing something (look at World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion to see where they're trying to do that), but the actual experience of sitting down with your friends and doing stuff are the central focus of roleplaying, not motioning through the storyteller's plot or avenging all of the wrongs done against your character.

That said, roleplaying is a social game. While that doesn't mean every character has to agree with one another, have the same goals, or even be in the same room as the others, it does mean that everyone is here to do something and remembering that is paramount. Sadly, this doesn't always work out. Humans, with a few exceptions, are born sociopathic and codependent--a combination delightfully mismatched enough that it gives platipuses something to laugh at. While we often want approval/camaraderie/loyalty of others, it's often hard to get that from them when they're so buy trying to get loyalty/camaraderie/approval from us(or someone more important than us). It's not that people are inherently jerks, it's just that sometimes when you get a bunch of them together with the intent of 'enjoying themselves,' the someone has to step in to moderate. As the person already in a position to adjudicate game rules and dictate story details, it naturally falls on the storyteller in most cases.

Moderating a gaming group is not an arduous task, but it's a multidimensional one, certainly too complicated for experience points to serve as a sole tool. Establishing expectations (from both you and your players, satisfying player needs, having supplies on hand, and keeping the initiative are all great ways to prevent conflicts and keep the game running smoothly and enjoyably. Victory lies, as always, in the preparation. But preparation is based on anticipation; what problems does the storyteller anticipate?

Leeeeeeeeeroy Jenkins!
You know the scenario; the party stands on the edge of an encounter with the enemy. Two or more characters stop to discuss amongst themselves what needs to be done. One character, bored because he isn't part of the conversation or doesn't see why it's necessary, declares his character will be starting a full scale assault. Most groups will sigh and join in; trying to stop him will only initiate player versus player combat, inevitably alerting who- or whatever they're encountering anyway. Letting him get himself killed would be more amusing, but it will still initiate the encounter when whatever kills him starts looking around for other adventurers. The party's stealth and intelligence in approaching encounters is equal to that of their loudest character and their most easily bored player.

I Motion that We Start a Committee to Vote on a Chair to Head the Municipal Council on the Murdering and Looting of Orcs
While some campaigns might focus on just showing up, fighting some guys, and counting the loot (again, fine if that's what you and your players want), others will usually adopt a more cerebral tack. Having preset 'smart' answers to encounters isn't a good idea ('Smart' is a relative thing, often based on a context that players rarely grasp as well as the storyteller), rather, rewarding players for trying something more than mindlessly charging into a fray will encourage them to do so more often. That said, it's not uncommon for players to become accustomed to this, and consider their problem at length until they either develop a strategy that other players will not have context for or until someone gets bored enough to pull a Leroy Jenkins. This isn't as much of a problem where your party as a leader...I imagine. I've never really run a game where one PC 'outranks' the others, mostly because of the inevitable insubordination, but also because it's been damned hard to get one guy who always shows up since Terry left.

No! I Cannot Fail!
Roleplaying isn't competitive. A character doesn't die unless the storyteller is a sadist or the character being a twit (sometimes both); failure is just a temporary setback or a hook for an even better adventure. Sometimes, the party just doesn't want to listen or enact one player's idea or follow their advice on which trail to follow. However it comes up, despite being a wish-fulfillment game, sometimes roleplayers don't get what they want. This can cause hurt feelings, and more relevantly, behavior which negatively affects the group. Emoting genuine frustration, anger, or dissatisfaction isn't a game breaker, but it is a mood killer. If the group were playing Yahtzee or Magic: the Gathering, it would be hilarious and a wellspring of schadenfreude. While most players will try to soften the blow of their character's actions or others' rolls of the dice, some people will be resolutely upset about not getting their way.

Heroism as a roleplaying issue isn't something I anticipate well. Often, I'll think it's stupid and begin preparing some minor, punitive action for such audacity. I try not to, remembering that smiting impertinence is the domain of only the most powerful forces in the game (though trying to smite impertinence is the domain of any sufficiently petty force, and can be far more fun). Sometimes, I need to be reminded that taking chances in the name of principle is something that people do, especially characters in roleplaying games.

Genre Savyness
This is my personal Waterloo of being a good roleplayer. Yeah, I crack wise and most of my characters will kill because killing is the chocolate to witty one-liners' peanut butter, but my most egregious attribute is how I mock everything in the setting ever; for either not fitting quite well enough, too well, or even being completely unremarkable. Roleplaying characters wrong (combat Wizards and gallows-humor Paladins) is almost as amusing to me as...well, anything else I find moderately amusing, and no matter how friendly it is, it's got to be rough storytelling for that. Whether I'm funny or not is immaterial; that I undercut theme and mood that fellow storytellers work hard to establish is. It doesn't make me endearing or improve the game; it's pretty, detrimental to the efforts of others, and all-around selfish behavior.

Some people smoke. Most of my friends are married now. Everyone poops. Every gaming session needs a break now and then,  and everyone has real life to deal with now and then, but constantly texting, repeatedly making phone calls, or causing distractions slow down the game. No one likes moving at a start and stop pace, which is why players who do these things shouldn't be shocked when they find that the game has moved on without them.

Unless you're doing a Bruce Campbell thing, Count Dooku is not "Count Poo-Pants," Dormammu is not "mammy flame face" and Enchantress is not pronounced "gimme some sugar baby." Immersion might be hard when everyone's guessing the next plot twist, pissing off their unseen deities, and quoting Monty Python, but it is important. Sure, you don't tell DnD stories to get laid, but you do tell them. Paying enough attention to A) Know what's going on and B) Learn the a bad guy's name for posterity's sake are both ideas sure to make you better able to craft responses appropriate to the situation and even help the game move faster since you don't need to have the significance of situations explained to you each and every time they come up.

I'll Do It On the Night
While you may not have the books, systems, or even your character sheet at your house, playing your character isn't limited to a few hours whenever everyone gets together with some dice. Thinking of moments that you want your character to have, whether it's combat, a monologue, or even a planned dialog with an NPC or another PC is a good thing. Few people can give great speeches at a moment's notice (even Savnege had to take a few minutes to get warmed up), but it's not hard to plan one in advance. While a lot of roleplaying is improvisational, the thought that everything has to be improvisational isn't. While laying out a character's hometown and genealogy represents a significant investment, it can also provide a storyteller with specifics for crumbling landmarks one might see while touring a decimated town or even the particular name and motivation for a particular vampire. Giving a storyteller personal elements isn't as effective at building your character as doing specific things with those elements. Talking about scenes you want with your storytellers is a great way to weave your character's personal development into a story without disrupting the flow of events, that development might even support a larger theme and make the story stronger.

Dice Latency
Your turn is awesome, but everyone else's turn is boring. There are three reasons for that; complicated combat systems, unfamiliar players, and dice latency. There isn't much to do about the first two except to learn about combat by paying attention to it. The third one is easily solvable. Dice latency is simply the time between the start of your turn and the time you roll the dice. One of the biggest causes of this is players who simply wander off (mentally or physically) after their turn. When their turn starts, they have to rejoin the game, reorient themselves, decide what they want to do, who they want to do it to, and what they have to roll for it. The items that can't be outright prevented can be sharply cut down; if they're paying attention to the combat that's happening when it's not their turn, they generally know what's going on. An attentive player may have to ask a few questions to the storyteller just to make sure they have everything right, but asking "This is the marked guy?" is a lot quicker than asking "Which of these guys are marked?" and more effective than declaring, "I hit the marked guy," only to find that the marked guy is across the field and eat-your-face guy is now adjacent to them instead (and will, in fact, be eating their face). If other peoples' turns are slow, then a player has all the more time to figure out their move (or ways they can work their character's personality into combat). The funny thing about dice latency is that it perpetuates itself; if players (and the storyteller) can keep turns moving quickly, then there isn't as much opportunity for players to get bored, to their actions are ready, their turns move quickly, and the next player doesn't have the opportunity to get bored, etc.. In addition, by paying more attention to other player's turns, you encourage others to do the same. Most people like recognition for their contributions to the party; knowing what others are doing helps a player become a leader in ensuring a game where players recognize the accomplishments of others.

Man-bats. Ninja man-bats.
Alarming twists are inevitable. People are complicated; and (unfortunately) a number of things happen in a person's life between game sessions. Any number of petty personal issues can weigh down a player and make them just shit to roleplay with, sometimes without any warning. Since you aren't House, and can't--
Before I continue, I'd like to take a second and make sure of the fact that you're not House. Go to a mirror, look at yourself. Between you and me, only one of us has an abrasive, egomaniacal attitude combined with deep, blue eyes and stubble that's disgusting, yet irresistably attractive, and it's not you.


Say to the mirror, "I am not House," then continue reading.

Ah, you didn't do it you douche. If that's too hard for you, just turn off your monitor and tell that vaguely head-shaped shadow that it isn't House.

Cameron, why can't you follow simple instructions?

We've established that you aren't House, so people will occasionally surprise you with their douchebaggery. The best you can do it just play it through and try to talk it out later. If all else fails, drug them. It works for House.

Experience Rules for The Doom Effect, aka The Point
At the end of each game session, each player is awarded a number of Experience Points. Each player gets one automatic point, and each player and the storyteller will then nominate themselves and one other player to get additional experience points from one of the categories below. It's the storyteller's choice as to whether or not a player is awarded those points. Multiple nominations for the same thing are cumulative; there's no penalty for doing one thing exceptionally well.

Commitment: This player had actions ready when it was their turn and kept the group (or themselves) on task.

Roleplaying: This player consistently stayed in-character, played critical moments well, and/or avoided using out of character knowledge. Also includes relating IC knowledge to other players through roleplaying (instead of a 'tell them everything X' said or just repeating the high points to them').

Teamplay: This player and/or his character worked well with their peers to help give everyone a part in the story.

Puzzle Solving: This player’s character helped piece together a puzzle or solve a mystery. Even blind luck counts.

Creativity: This player’s character did something creative and effective. While this might have disrupted the story or the session, it was original and fun. “That’s what she said” and Family Guy quotes do not count.

Grace for the Story:  While the character may suffer a setback or fail to receive the attention/credit she deserves/desires, her player takes it in stride. This is rewarded for the grace, not the defeat.

Remembering Elements: This player’s character remembered the names of their fellow PCs, refrained from calling NPCs and villains by nicknames, recognized that guy from that time with the thing (or vice-versa) and/or effectively managed to explain an in-universe relationship (via recap or dialog).

Dramaticalness: This is different from merely roleplaying. Dramaticalness is a speech, story, or monologue that your character has prepared in advance, possibly about their origins, history, nemeses, motivations, or previous adventures. They can either wait for another PC to broach the subject or get with the storyteller to have an NPC prompt them during the story. This is worth 1 experience point for attempting, 2 for preparation, and 3 for excellence. You can only be awarded Dramaticalness once per session and do not need to be nominated for it, though nominations for roleplaying with a particular flourish are not out of the question.

Experience Point Costs
All experience expenditures should be based on action over the last few games or on your character’s desire/ability to learn something new. The nature of this game means that gaining new powers and abilities is fairly rare. However, new powers can be gained if you and the storyteller work out a scenario in which your character’s abilities can be accelerated or modified.

Trait Increase       Cost
Attribute____________Current Rating x 4
Ability______________Current Rating x 2
Background___________Current Rating x 2
Mega-Attribute_______Current Rating x 5
Level 1 Power________Current Rating x 3
Level 2 Power________Current Rating x 5
Level 3 Power________Current Rating x 7

New Trait
Level 1 Power________3
Level 2 Power________6
Level 3 Power________9

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