Monday, December 3, 2012

Subplot Kudzu and Other Terms


This post is here to define terms I’ll be using through the remainder of the blog. I expect to update this as needed.

Didn’t I Mention (DIM) Skills: skills that the character suddenly reveals in play either because they are logical extensions of the characters existing skills or because they are needed to advance the plot. These are great ways to hit the ground running in the first session since you know that skill gaps will quickly get filled in. I will sometimes institutionalize these in the game mechanics for just that purpose, but some players will request pools of unspent character ‘points’ at the start to define later.

Flags: Player selected aspects of a character that show the GM where the player would like to have spotlight time. If someone’s PC has that they speak the language of small burrowing mammals, it means that at some point they want it to be relevant that they can speak to small burrowing mammals – maybe a little bit of information every session, maybe never until the badgers can point out which suspect is the murderer. I will try to design game systems that make explicit what parts of character design are flags so the GM knows where to look when designing sessions.

Genre Play: what I aim for in campaign design. I see it as the intersection of Narrativist and Simulationist in the three-fold model since I am striving to simulate the rules of a particular narrative genre. My goal is to run, say, a Star Trek game where each session feels like a Star Trek episode. This means I’ll spend a lot of time looking at each genre or media property’s particular beat patterns for individual components and longer arcs, the setting’s underlying assumptions and where I can reinforce them or break them for particular effects.

Kirkliness: this is a Jonathan Tweet term (many of these other terms appear elsewhere in game theory, but I don’t necessarily know who coined them) for a hero’s ability to judge whether an action – usually an escape – is viable. This is what lets Captain Kirk get captured at gunpoint and then wait until the optimal moment to try to disarm the guard. Giving PCs a high degree of Kirkliness, either by telling them outright what their chance of success is to start and let them know when it changes makes the player more willing to accept being captured since they know you’ll point out the optimal escape time. Giving them a high degree of Kirkliness by letting them reversethe effect of a bad disarm attempt keeps the PC from getting vaporized when and if they do try for a disarm. I usually prefer for the former, but the latter is good too.

The New Jersey: the new guy, to whom the rules of the setting must be explained as to make sense to the audience. This is named for the character New Jersey in Buckaroo Banzai, but it is an incredibly helpful way to hit the ground running in a campaign where the PCs are supposed to be established heroes and you don’t want to break game flow for swaths of ‘you all know this’ exposition. The New Jersey takes the role of the inexperienced hero to give a reason for quick in character exposition (either from a GM mouthpiece NPC or from the other players, each of whom only has to absorb a fraction of the setting data to deliver in character). The New Jersey may also be the Schwarzschild, but in any event their character has a reliably large growth arc over the campaign.

Session: the length of a single meeting for game play. All of my calculations assume sessions are 4-6 hours long of dedicated (child free, focused) gaming time. If your group meets for less time or is less focused on the game as you, say, wind down from a day at work, then you might not get as much in per session.

Schwarzschild: A character whose presence warps the focus of the game towards her so that she becomes the focus of the game. This can sometimes be a good thing but it has to be something you plan for at the campaign start, such as a Slayer in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer game, or a ‘child of prophecy’ in any number of fantasy settings. If it’s not planned for you’re not being fair to players who figured that their PC was also due for a fair share of spotlight time. Note that being the Schwarzschild doesn’t make you more powerful, it just drags the spotlight to you more often and attempts to gain this status is what leads some people to become Special Snowflakes.

Social contract pressure: using the groups spoken or unspoken table rules (such as ‘we will try to fit in all PCs to all plots’ or ‘there should be no PC to PC violence’) as a mechanism for forcing the game to bend to your preferences. This is often playing a character who is an enormous jerk comfortable in the knowledge that the other players will not ostracize/kill her or designing a character who is so bad at certain things (such as stealth) that her presence prevents that thing from ever being a viable team strategy. Like being a Special Snowflake, this is a subtly abusive behavior.

Special Snowflake: a PC that violates the terms of the campaign prospectus. The ongoing A&E example of this is if I have everyone sign on to a game where the PCs are members of a Roman Legion and one player wants to be a camp follower. Yes, it’s possible that such a character might be with the legion, but the campaign prospectus is pretty clear: all PCs are members of a Roman Legion, and a camp follower just ain’t. Some players design special snowflakes because they don’t really agree with the campaign prospectus but are trying to play anyway, some are attempts to attain Schwarzschild status by being the odd man out, and some are trying to exert control over the other characters through social contract pressure since they will have to find a way to fit your character in. As a general rule I dislike special snowflakes

Spotlight Time: time spent during play focused on one or more characters doing things that the characters player things are cool, interesting or relevant to the plot. This is, to my mind, the only currency in gaming, since the only truly limited commodity in any game session is time. Experience points are nice is a BF Skinner fashion but not all campaigns, especially all short campaigns, have a reason for character growth in terms of skill or power. No, the actual point of gaming is the opportunity to have ones character do interesting things. If you have that, and have enough of it over the campaign, then the campaign will be fun. Note that not everyone has to have balanced spotlight time every session, but they need to have it over the whole campaign. Note also that spotlight time is determined by the player finding it cool, not the GM. Never fall into the trap of thinking that because someone’s PC got to do something you find cool that the player sees it the same way. They likely do. They might not.

Subplot Kudzu:  the uncontrolled growth of subplots in a campaign. This was one of my biggest problems as a GM. It all starts nice and neat – a disgruntled ex-husband here, a mysterious stranger there – but eventually my games became tangles of over-lapping, player-baffling, hard to track plot threads. I have found two ways to combat the subplot kudzu: First is to work with small (4-6 session) plot arcs with clear resolutions while the subplots run in the background. Every 3-5 arcs I arrange for a big conclusion that thins out the kudzu and we step away from the campaign for a bit. When we come back I have an opportunity to start, if not from scratch, from a distinctly cleared field where the smaller plots can once again work. The other solution is breathtakingly simple: stick to short campaigns. Games of 6-12 sessions just don't have the time to develop this problem. When you know the campaign is only 6-12 sessions you can make sure everyone has a subplot or two and wrap them up before the end.