Sunday, May 15, 2016

God's Workbench Part 2: The Great White Space

You are a mighty wizard.  Every few weeks your buds Elric, Eowyn, Belit and Tim the Enchanter show up to spend a few hours drinking off-brand soda and shoot the poop in your dungeon.  As host it is your pleasure to keep them thoroughly entertained.  Because once the Funyuns run out there's no telling what sort of craziness they will do this time.

Exciting and terrifying.  It's what every Crypt Lord experiences at the start of every game.  Welcome to The Great White Space.

It's less stress if the players are crypt bashing.  RPG rules are specifically designed to facilitate play in these well-defined spaces. However, once all the chambers have been mapped, the denizens dispatched and the last bit of swag liberated, they will clamber back to the surface.  Onward to a new adventure?  Go back to town and spend a few coins?   Or, “Oh look, that’s shiny..., how about we go that way”?  No matter, the players have just left the most defined part of the game. Now your work becomes trickier.

The Big Arrow is the overall game Narrative as it moves through time. Breaks in the arrow are individual game sessions.  Question Marks are possibilities that could be, but have not been acted on. Dotted lines show possibilities that have been acted on.  The table icons represent Gameable Action.

This is a scheme to visualize the Great White Space.  Penciling it out allowed me to pull an RPG’s session mechanics apart.  Here is what I came up with.  First, I discovered there are two basic types of game activity during a session: Narrative and Gameable Action. Narrative is represented by the big arrow, question marks and dashed lines. Gameable Action is represented by the table icons.  A lot has been written individually about both, but not on how they can inform the Crypt Lord to better design adventures.

Let’s address the Narrative in terms of design and preparation. In all my years of creating adventures I never used that term, instead I thought of it as the “logic” of the adventure.  Once I made and understood this logic everything else fell into place.  It’s the first broad stroke on the blank canvas.  Following marks are made in relation to the ones before.  Nailing down the logic also allowed me to wing things that were unaccounted for in my design in a consistent way. Without consistency the players will feel they have no control.

Let’s talk about designing for Gameable Action.  Gameable Action is the part of the game when miniatures get put on the table and play is being resolved in Na-nutas, by casting magic, chopping off bits of flesh and moving in units measured in feet.   Gameable Action are the specific keyed areas, encounters, creepie stats and anything that affects the persons in a detailed way.  A town map of Aarn definitely is needed  for this. A key of the guard barracks. The list of notable laws.  And so on.

I’ll illustrate by way of example:

The players enter the village of Aarn.  Walking down the lane they see signs of prosperity.  Everyone has a smile on their face and a spring in their step.  The fountain features a huge gem held aloft on magical streams of water.  Here's what the players don't know. Aarn has a terrible secret (duh).  Two miles away, hidden in the side of the mountain is Zlak, its sister village.   Those who break the law of Aarn are sent to the Zlak (yes, a forced labor camp). The people of Aarn figured out that the more crazy the laws were, the more free labor they had to tap.  Hence, Aarn’s prosperity. This is the overall logic and the big Narrative piece that drives this setting.  As a Crypt Lord once this part has been decided on, you can build the smaller bits.  They may be directly related to the big overall logic, completely random or anywhere in between.These will jotted down as notes.  So:  The current elder’s son broke a law and was forced to work in Zlak.  It turns out the son actually didn’t break the law,  he took the fall willingly for his mom.  Another: There is a witch hiding in a chicken coop. She’s particularly good at this, because she can transform into a chicken. And so on.  Usually,  these are called “plot hooks”. These smaller ones are bits of drama that may be acted upon.  If they are, then you can flesh out details as you go along.  If they don’t bite on one of these you haven't spent too much energy on it, so it’s not a waste.  Think of it as planting little seeds that may or may not grow.  The smaller ones are no less important, these are the proverbial “wrench” that the players often use to effect the big Narrative.  How they do this is where the big fun of the game often lives.

So far, players have been wandering around, asking questions, looking at stuff and interacting with the locals.  As the Crypt Lord, understanding the logic of this place allows you the luxury of not having to write down every freaking detail.  As you describe things, it will be in the context of this Logic.

(Gameable Action)
Boram, (one of the players), has worked the hinges of the chicken coop door off.  Something about one of the chickens just isn’t right (she used her skill Gut Feeling, pg 33).  Breaking and entering definitely breaks one Aarn’s many, many laws.  As Crypt Lord, I knew to design this adventure that I would need detailed descriptions of the police forces of Aarn.  The players know it’s a set up, that I’ll be keeping a close eye to see if someone in Aarn can catch them breaking a law.  Indeed, this is part of the fun. So I have my non-player personas ready in the wings.  I made a generic stat block descriptor for the common gaurd types and three progressively more powerful NCO’s.  I have a map of the town, where guards are typically stationed and some ways to randomly generate reinforcements and so on.  I am basically ready.  So the door is off the coop, a guard has been shadowing them and blows a whistle. I say “Boram is right here (I point on the mat), the rest of you put your selves down on the map”.  Just like that the session has switched from Narrative to Gameable Action.  Players who were daydreaming suddenly are paying attention.  In the coop or out? Now it matters.  Once we start the ground rules for the action get set. There will be a defined number of guards and the terrain is fixed. A weapon that is being sharpened is not available.  This part of the game session is most like the traditional definition of game. It has turns, players move game pieces with defined attributes, pieces that have their PHP reduced to zero die.

When the battle ends, typically the session swings back to Narrative mode.  Then something happens and Gameable Action is triggered.  As the Crypt Lord, understanding Narrative and Gameable Action informs you on how best to prepare for Great White Space.  

A note on terms used in this post.  Crypt Lord is what the GM is called in Crypts-N-Creepies.  Player Persona’s liberate Swag from Crypts for economic reinsertion.  I went back and forth on whether to use generic terminology, but decided that since I play C-N-C, I’d use the terms native to it.  This may rub some of you the wrong way.  If so send me a note and I’ll put in front of the committee.  

A new encounter system next time.

P 33 of the C-N-C rule book for sticklers
Elric of M. inspecting a "Funyun"

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