Monday, 16 September 2013

RPGs: A Question of Structure

As I think has been established, I'm a roleplayer (I have a largely defunct gaming blog at Hastur's Hamster but I've sort of given up on it in favour of this blog - might as well as do everything in one place).

One issue we've had in our gaming group is a question over structure. It's something that first arose because one of the players entered a profession that requires her to do shift work; so she isn't always available on gaming nights. Another player is an academic and consequently isn't always around either, which rather extends the problem. Recently the issue came up again because another friend has become fed up with the fact that the games we play don't last very long - we have three GMs in a group of seven people so it's not really an ideal situation. There are a few reasons our games don't last that long, sometimes if I'm running something (and I should say that it feels like an age since I actually sat down to run a 'proper' game rather than fill ins, one shots or short runs) I get annoyed with the system - I'm not hugely good at maths and find the mechanical side of gaming a chore at times. At the same time I like to have a system rather than plunging head first into free form gaming because that feels a bit too wild and woolly. The scheduling issue remains a problem - I tried running a game of the Laundry over the summer and found that I had to drop huge chunks of my plans because people just couldn't make the game. It's difficult to build enough flexibility into the game to keep everyone happy and roll with the punches sufficiently.

There have been other issues as well - the friend who's recently quit gaming ran a fantasy campaign where he effectively removed the players' choices and stumbled into referencing some bad stuff that had happened in one of the other player's past. Given that the arc focused on her completely it was unfortunate and I'm sure it was a mistake rather than anything. But the damage was done and she was rather upset that the changes had been introduced.

I suspect, from the perspective of a writer this simply underlines the truism that writing and gaming are different beasts. They may look similar but they have different pedigrees, methods and strategies. A book needs to be deeper and requires more thought than a game, which needs to be a lot more flexible than a novel, or even a short story. Gaming requires a hell of a lot more communication than writing ever did - because in truth the GM is just helping the players to create the game; it's a role of stage manager mingled with being a director in an occasionally hellish mixture. Where a writer handles everything, the GM really only sets the stage, provides the problem and then spends the rest of the time reacting to what the players do.

Our awesome Shadowrun game is moving from the realm of a collection of one shots and shorts to being an actual campaign. It may not have a big plot but there's enough going on to make it more than just random adventures. The character's have pasts, which have actually been developed through play and contacts based on what we've done in game - rather than being mandated by the players.  I feel very strongly that no matter how much you set things up to run in the long term, in a very real sense only what you do in the game actually counts. Even if you sit down to run a classic campaign like Masks of Nyarlethotep (which I won't be doing - my long standing love of the Cthulhu Mythos is slipping down into disgust I'm afraid), it only becomes a campaign through play - otherwise it's just a book.

This leads me, in a round about fashion to what passes for my point. Next year, once the MA is done, I'm hoping to run a game of Yggdrasil - a Norse set game with lots mythology and pathos set a few centuries before the Norsemen started to spread out into the British Isles and northern France. I'd like to make the game a long one (if only to prove my friend wrong) but circumstances dictate that it be carved into bite size chunks so that the focus can swing around a lot - allowing for a lot of spotlighting - and to allow for flexibility. My thought on this is to have one plot that chugs along and rises up as 'chapters' interpersed with a lot of smaller, more directed plots to spread out the characters' lives and create supporting casts and so on. I hope to do this to partly drive the other plot too, weaving the ideas in and out in the hopes of making the game more interesting.

To this end I've decided to set the characters up in the city of Klepp on the Norwegian coast, start them off in a boat where they'll (hopefully) go on a quest to recover a Maguffin (in this case a six year old girl called Osk, who seems to have an uncanny gift to know other people's secrets). After the initial arc of finding the mean people who've taken her and returning to Klepp the player characters will get individual plots and once those are solved we'll swirl back to Osk and the problem of more meanies who have nefarious designs on her. Once that's sorted there'll be more individual plots - rinse, repeat, rinse and repeat.

At the moment I'm trying to work out the plot regarding Osk and the first wave of smaller plots (which at the moment involve a gang of bullies, wolves, giants and a mysterious potion that the Jarl's wife drinks nightly), in the hopes of stealing a march on time and getting things nailed down. I'd probably have more if I knew what more of the characters are likely to be - at present I know I'm likely to get a skald and a travelling blacksmith but nothing more than that (to be fair I think it's a bit early to ask).

What I'm hoping from this is to get the best of both worlds, a campaign sized plot with the flexibility of short adventures and the ability to spot light characters to make sure nobody feels left out. No idea if it'll work, but I've got to try right?