Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Gaming: A Question of Structure

Having done some dissection of various genres and game tropes, or at least run down the things I dislike, I’m turning nerdy (or should that be nerdier?) to look at campaign structure. This is a subject most gamers don't contemplate and, I sense, most of us don't want to consider. There is an allure to the ‘unplanned’ game, where playing is laid back and the whole thing fits together like clockwork. The reality is that structure is something that impacts on most of us, even if we don't acknowledge it.

Structure can take two forms, the first is simply deciding where and when adventures fall in your campaign, is that too easy for the middle of the game is that too difficult. One of my plots, an auction game where the player characters travel to a remote location and have to a) ascertain whether the item for sale is what they’re looking for and b) buy or steal it, all while staying on the right side of their paranoid host. So far so simple, but I’ve always felt that it’s a plot that needs to sit part way through the campaign, once the characters reputations have been established. As I’ve never had a game last long enough put the plot into motion, it remains unplayed.

The second relates to how you set out your adventures in totality, how you envisage the run of the campaign. Rather than being concerned with the narrative, it deals with way the skeleton of the whole piece is built and the experience that players undergo. Whilst there’s an argument that any campaign consists of sequential adventures, leading one from the other and increasing in difficulty as player characters gain experience points, this kind of structure deals with the way you put those together. This is what I’m really talking about here, and while I nod towards indie games that act as exemplars of each mode, my focus is really on traditional games, if only because I stopped collecting RPGs for the sake of it some time ago and I’m referring to what I have either read or played.

The first thing we should probably consider is how games are designed. Increasingly in the modern age, there is a strong element of intent within the design process, whether that’s embracing the Forge’s GNS theory or because the design is looking to invoke a genre, something that can include old school Dungeons and Dragons as easily as it does Noir, or Pulp. That’s partly what the Old School Revolution is about; capturing the atmosphere of the original fantasy games. Mechanically, this often means making sure that the rules will enable a style of play, so swashbuckling games support high octane, athletic fights, whilst horror games support the idea of diminishing sanity.

Increasingly games are designed with you play the game in mind. Fiasco is designed to excel at one shots for example, and many newer products on the market have a ‘pick up and play’ feel to them: Barbarians of Lemuria might not obviously be designed for short games, but the ease at which you can build characters certainly lends that element to it. Games like Shadowrun and SLA Industries fit this mode too, their central assumptions are keyed to missions that are done and dusted quickly, setting the player characters up for the next, possibly unconnected, encounter.

Hollow Earth Expedition, on the other hand, is set up for the long haul, even set somewhere that you can’t really dip in and out and which remains central to the game even if you’re playing adventures set on the surface world. This seems to be a feature of games that run on the Ubiquity system, of the three I’ve seen[1], only All For One: Regime Diabolique feels as if has a flexible structure. The others are pretty much slaved to depicting epic adventures that go all over the globe. Over at Pelgrane’s Gumshoe games Night’s Black Agents is not only designed to be played as a campaign, it operates in a rigid structure, as the characters climb the ‘conspyramid’ to find the vampires they’re fighting.

Between the two sits another structure, one that’s like a TV series, small adventures that grow into something more significant because there’s a continued focus on a particular story. Most World of Darkness games, with their focus on theme and mood, feel as if they’re designed for this: limited campaigns that don’t go on forever and ever but tell their specific story or arc and then move on to something else. The most iconic game for this kind of gaming though, is Primetime Adventures, which openly takes inspiration from serial television.

Each of these campaign designs has its advantages and its pitfalls. What I intend to do is pull them apart a bit and see how they work, what their advantages are and where pitfalls lie. It should be remember that different structures lend themselves to different kinds of narrative or play experience. What will work well with one game, won’t work with another.

Mission based games are largely stand alone, presenting an adventure as a single, solitary entity. In terms of other media, they’re like a cartoon show or a book of short stories, using a setting to give the players something to do often without being connected to other adventures. They can offer flexibility and allow players to explore the setting, and to contribute. Where they excel is in variety of subject matter and in spotlighting; the GM can shift the focus from one player to another, in much the same way as the media mentioned above.

The danger here is mission games can start to feel unfocused, as you slip from one subject to another. One week you raid a lab to retrieve samples, the next you’re hunting a serial killer. Once the adventure is over, then the PCs often never return. If they do, then it’s likely you’ve forgotten half the original adventure and are wondering what the fuss is about. Did we meet the one eyed man with the three faced, chain smoking cat before, or was it someone else? At the most extreme the game turns into a series of one shots with no common ground; it hangs in limbo, with nothing to make it compelling. Variety becomes both a blessing and a curse.

They also run the risk of becoming repetitive, especially if there’s scant attention paid to continuity or world building. This is because most games are based on action/adventure stories, even if they’re played out rather than written down. They reflect their genre by having a static internal structure that consists of a number of ‘moves’, investigation, discovery and combat, with little deviation from the formula. This is reflected in the way that players can only select from a limited number of actions, fight; talk, run, and steal. Whilst the plot moves towards a denouement, it behoves us to acknowledge that this is likely to be another, bigger fight before the player characters head home for tea and cheesy toasties.

The format was sold to me under the premise of its flexibility, the idea that it would fit around the busy jobs that some of the people I was gaming with at the time were doing. In fact, I don’t think it did anything of the sort, acting as a way to justify players not engaging or buying into the game. Keeping people motivated is a topic for another blog, but I feel that unless everyone is on board, mission based gaming starts to feel like a punishment for consistently turning up to play, whilst doing nothing involve people who don’t turn up regularly.

The Epic structure is perhaps best considered to be the novel of the RPG world, inherently long form and potentially complicated. It evokes the sort of epics that gaming companies have published in the past, books like the Rod of Seven Parts, The Enemy Within or the Masks of Nyarlethotep. These feed into the special place the campaign has in the gamers’ imagination, the game that takes you from a zero to a hero, a nothing to a Superman. They serve as something of a talisman, the multiyear game that goes on and on in an endless summer. It is also perhaps the most ‘natural’ feeling of the three models, because of this. Small wonder it is also the basis for a huge number of computer games as well, all capped off with duels to the death with dragons, demons, gods and other escapees from the cosmological petting zoo.

This kind of game tends to be the GM’s territory, rather than the players’. Many players expect and in some cases desire this sort of play experience: it either gives them something to kick against, creating an ‘enemy GM’ who must be defeated, or lets them forget about gaming while they aren’t doing it; knowing their role is to turn up and participate. So the GM can go to town, laying down plots, twists; surprises and so on until he or she is blue in the face, without too much interference.

This can really make the setting shine, letting its character take centre stage; you get the full sense of Warhammer’s Old World or the wilds of Faerun, or wherever you’re playing. It can also feel organic, because you are by necessity involved in your character’s life; there is no cut away or downtime between encounters. You get a warts and all experience, touching parts that you need not consider in a mission based structure, where how you pay for food or get laid may not feature. The long form nature of the structure gives the rarest of gifts, the chance to breathe and develop character; in contrast to the potential haste intrinsic to mission based play where you need to get things done both in and out of game.

The other advantage of Epic as a structure is that it’s often completely open. You can have a large spanning plot that takes characters from one place to another without the start/stop/start again that missions can develop: play is more open ended. Travel fits well into the evolving nature of this kind of structure.

The problem is that an epic campaign can become overwhelming; players can be blinded with too much detail. It can also start to feel as if you have little control over your character’s destiny, because the grand story takes precedence over everything else, or the GM stalls, waiting for the right moment. Which is great in the right circumstances, but if you’re losing interest in the grand plot you won’t really appreciate that you can’t unmask the King’s uncle’s plan to ensure the Queen remains barren because the moon isn’t in the eighth house of Aquarius with the moons at their fullest.

Finally, the ‘Chronicle’ lurks in a hazy ground between the two, taking the short form adventures mission based play focuses on and hitching it to the longer story epic campaign strives towards. Where it differs from the latter is that the arc will be more constrained. You aren’t going out to reclaim the seven mystic doodads that will keep the evil dragon empress contained in her volcano prison; you’re trying to clear your local neighbourhood of a series of threats. In the same way Mission based gaming works you’re dealing with the intimate, but there are connections between adventures. Clearing the neighbourhood of small monsters reveals a larger enemy lurking in the shadows, the strange sword you found in your den turns out to belong to a rival who will do anything to reclaim it. The plots connect, building a wider world. Add theme to the mix and you can develop something very close to what a TV season looks like, to the extent that I believe Primetime Adventures does exactly this.

For me this is the best way to play, the pace will be brisk and your adventures can be varied, but there’ll also be consistency and a reason to care about what the player characters are doing. There’s always a final objective to work towards, defeating the king vampire, getting rid of the alien incursion; or recovering the last pages of the Black Grimoire and its presented as being a feasible goal. With a good GM you’ll know what the end point is either before you start playing or in the first few weeks. After that, you have a focus on what’s going, with a few side trips that can bear fruit later. It also allows for ‘season’ play, keeping the same characters and setting but allowing both to develop as new threats become revealed. This also allows for GMs to lay games along a theme, exploring a particular idea.

The downside is that you do lose something from both the other modes of play. There’s no way you can have the flexibility, the ‘do anything’ of the mission because you have to make some sort of sense within your larger framework and there’s a natural loss of scope because you can’t have a never ending story. Again, the form’s constraints are going to limit what you can do.

In conclusion, the structure your campaign takes will always be subject to a number of factors, the genre you’re playing, player expectations and how much of a commitment you’re looking to make. You may find your game adopts all three structural forms over the course of its life, if it can, as it adapts to events in the real world, or you may find that you find your groove and stick with it. It’s an important thing to keep in mind, but not to be beholden to; don’t be afraid to experiment. Perhaps your Hollow Earth Expedition characters can play missions once they’re stuck in the inner earth’s steamy, night-less jungles; perhaps the Shadowrunners can be sent on a long campaign as they try to identify Aztechnology’s Directors; who’s to say, apart from you? The important thing is to decide what structure you want to play and then to make it work, rather than doing it half-heartedly, and to make allowances for the places where the mechanics don’t quite support what you’re doing. And above all, don’t get too hung up on it, and have fun.


[1]  Hollow Earth Expedition, Leagues of Adventure and All for One: Regime Diabolique