Friday, January 20, 2012

Evolution

Idea....

The most commercially successful games all have a default answer to this question built in to the system:

How will play in this same campaign 8 months from now be fundamentally different than it is tonight?

In D&D the default answer is: you'll be levelled up by then, and this means something. You'll be fighting crazy godlike monsters and exploring planes instead of dungeons or be building castles. Here is the concrete evidence: the spells go up to level 9 and the monsters include like Tiamat and Demogorgon. Look, there it is, waiting for you...

In Rifts the answer is: you'll either be fucking with this Coalition that rules North America or you'll get to see some whole new continent full of more crazy robodemonborgs. Proof: look at these crazy splatbooks we keep putting out Japan, South America, Africa etc. Unlike D&D, your PC will not have changed that much, but you will be seeing new stuff, so keep on.

In Vampire: TM the default answer is: you'll be higher up in the convoluted Vampire hierarchy and/or you will be further along in the metaplot that you've noticed we keep publishing. See, it keeps coming out. Even though you will still be pretty much some bloodsucking badass like you already were, the story will have progressed to some new phase.

In Call of Cthulhu the default answer is: you'll be dead or insane. Or more insane. Or insane in some new way. Or you'll be surrounded by dead or insane friends. Anyway point is the situation will have become entertainingly more desperate.

In Warhammer the default answer is: you'll have a whole new (better, more badass) career and you may also be insane. Or mutated.

-Shadowrun: possible exception?

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Point is: every RPG session produces changes in that session. "Bangs" "assignments""plot developments""twists""occurrences" whatever.

The really successful games promise or suggest (though do not mandate) a specific kind of change will occur over the long haul.

This is like a barely perceptible carrot keeping the players interested session after session, even when they don't know it. The game is going somewhere.

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Notes for GMs:

-Not all level-up systems automatically produce this idea of change. In D&D, level 20 is not just level-1-but-more-powerful, it's practically a different game. You go through distinct phases (usually) in D&D: useless schmuck, badass hero, crazy godling loaded down with items. In other systems, levelling up just means you are kind of better--but the enemies are still the same relative to you.

-The game ending is not an expectation of change. In The Oddyssey the sailors expect to be done and not sailing any more when they finish. That's not what I'm talking about. If they thought in 4 months their boat would be flying and four months after that they'd be maybe going through time then that would be what I'm talking about.

-If you remove a game's built in "change engine" or it doesn't have one but you still want long-term campaign play then either: the players have to trust that the supply of new and crazy exciting ideas you are coming up with is basically infinite (which you may be able to guarantee but the system can't) or you have to create (or let the players create) a developing plot that intrigues the players and makes them want to see what's next.

-Example (thanks John): a D&D ranger guy who is doing a land survey, mapping uncharted territory. If the player thinks genuinely that the next territory will be new and interesting, that is an expectation of change over time. There you go.

Or: A Conan type trying to conquer stuff. If the player expects to conquer stuff and then the game ends, that isn't the expectation that'll keep tons of people interested. If the player expects to conquer stuff and then the game changes to where it's about armies and castles and new lands--that's a change over time.

Smart GMs seems to set up these expectations automatically--like Jeff Gameblog has a dungeon full of 1st-4th level PCs and he is already talking about the dragon in there and the wizard that built it and the possible portal to Hell in the lower depths.

This also may be why lite indie games have a reputation for being one-shotty. Unless the players (or GM, when there is one) makes up a specific change-over-time expectation, the games usually don't provide them on their own. (I have no quarrel with Noisms comment below about how this is often a feature and not a bug.)




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Now in the comments today we will inevitably meet someone who goes "Oh I played such-and-such for 80 years and nothing ever changed and my whole group loved it". That's great. We believe you. Pat pat.

49 comments:

Jez said...

Really really good post Zak. Lots to think about for game design. Thanks.

noisms said...

Good post. The only thing I would add is that, for the kind of indie games you talk about, the lack of an "8 month plan" is a feature rather than a bug. Those games are designed, as far as I can tell, to last for about 6 sessions at the most, and provide a neat package for that period. Which is fine if that's what you want, and it does mean you get to try out loads of different games - after 6 sessions you move on to the next system.

That said, it's not a hard and fast thing. In A Wicked Age could go on for a long time, because it's sort of cyclical, with people playing different characters in different situations.

Rorschachhamster said...

Great post.
Made me think of my own expectations, both as a Gm and a player, as I generally prefer low level play in D&D-like games...

Joshua said...

It's an excellent concept and feature for role-playing games anyway. Because not only do you have plenty of stories of back when your character could have been beaten up by a chicken, yet somehow still surviving to do great things later on, but it gives players a sense of accomplishment and a reason to keep coming back for more.

Crooked Rook said...

Thought provoking.

World of Darkness games like Vamp also allowed you to get pretty bad ass over time.

Zak S said...

@rook

I know nothing of WoD, really, but I do know that you start out as a vampire and that is 90% (in terms of customization) of what vampire players seems to want. The rest is just icing.

The Grumpy Celt said...

Eight months in you will be used to your gaming group and what will and will not fly with them. That matters more than the rules.

Also, the new World of Darkness is largely without a metaplot.

And I am surprised you've not explored vampire, it would seem to be right up your alley, so to speak.

Zak S said...

@cult
My alley?
A storyteller game where everyone is the same race, you fight other things that are the same race, with an emphasis on character, story and soap opera beloved by goths where people typically play themselves only skinnier and which often becomes a LARP?

What blog are you reading?

Zak S said...

Also, your comment about "the rules" might be a missing-the-point-of-the-post thing.

Zak S said...

also, my whole point was about what makes games commercially successful and from what i understand the new WoD has tanked.

Though i don't know if i know enough to say that's why

Matthew Miller said...

Good post, Zak. But I'm a bit dubious about your inclusion of Call of Cthulhu. I'm not sure if "dead or insane" really qualifies as "playing a fundamentally different game 8 months later." Both death and insanity in CoC take your character OUT of the game, no?

Zak S said...

@matt

insane most certainly does not take your PC out of cthulhu

Zak S said...

i.e. If you are still playing the same pc in 8 months, that pc will be different. if you're not, the game will be different because you aren't playing that pc any more

blizack said...

I'm wondering if this applies to Traveller, where there is literally no system for character advancement, and the idea is that you kind of float around space and do odd jobs.

Barking Alien said...

What about Superhero games?

While you certainly get more powerful as you gain experience points, that isn't really as much the draw or the promised conclusion.

Steve Krenson, author of Mutants & Masterminds (arguably the most successful Superhero RPG at this time), ICONS and contributor on every Supers game I can think of, noted that in superhero comic books, you really don't see that much change and progress power wise for most characters. That isn't the draw so much.

So what is? The story developing? Maybe but again, no guarantee.

Is it possible to have a game that is cool or popular simply for the sake of exploring a genre or for being a good game? What constitutes a good game if not gaining points, becoming more powerful and/or moving up in some other way?

Curious on you take on Supers I guess.

Zak S said...

@barking

good question

i think probably many good superhero GMs are like you: they build up worlds with internal consistency and repeating villains and take their cues from big plots (and subplots) in actual comics. So players do expect to see some new thing, it's just not built into the system, it's more built into the genre expectations.

Though this perhaps does explain why no single superhero system has dominated the market for a long time.

Perhaps no superhero system could: any original superhero mythology in an RPG would have to compete with what DC and Marvel put out every month for player brainspace and that is impossible.

Zak S said...

though i just had an idea:

a supergero game where you level up and play thru golden, silver, & modern age adventures in order. kind of the reverse order of D&D's gritty-to-godlike spectrum

Barry Blatt said...

Depends on the setting, but when I've played it for any length of time the amount and quality of techno gizmos the PCs have access to certainly goes up, and they have built up a little commercial empire.

Alex J. said...

The Watchmen RPG?

Alex J. said...

In Champions, the rules suggested something called the "Radiation Experiment". Where a character gets exposed to handwavium rays, and gets "reshuffled", so to speak. You choose all new powers with the same number of points. (That is, he keeps his experience.)

bombasticus said...

Sure. In classic Traveller all those odd jobs were chasing net worth. Now that you mention it, though I almost want to run a really decadent Third Imperium "drift" game, Victor's European Vacation in space where they confront the inherent anomie of existence. And do space drugs.

bombasticus said...

In Pendragon, we will still be playing in eight months but your kids will have mourned you and moved on.

Nick said...

Nice post! I always fear that I come across as endlessly pimping the things I love, but I will say that I think you've nailed why Adventurer Conqueror King has captured my fancy so much. Tavis et al seem to have been thinking in these terms in their design, making that game changing curve slightly more explicit without mandating.

Anyway, it's an interesting way to think about a game, and an aspect that is normally tucked away into a discussion of the "end game," if mentioned at all. It's a question of trajectory.

Rocco Privetera said...

I think it depends on the game (D&D is designed to have that "you keep playing to do more awesome things" mechanic) but even as D&D is concerned in game mechanics not much about the game changes. And the new D&D's even moreso. One of the reasons I'm not that into 4e.

Why? Well, every character has the same collection of skills and damage dealing and buffs and so forth. Yeah, some the characters have classes that *sort of* refine this, but to my AD&D 1e upbringing, not really. When the magic-user has a direct damage spell that works every round just like the fighter, calling it a "spell" vs a "sword" makes it academic.And really the only major difference, to me, are the numbers. At 1st level I do x damage over Y for z turns. At 10th I do A times as much damage... but it's still all about damage/healing/info retrieval/buffing, with cosmetic names.

SO the reason I'm mentioning: when *I* GM, to me, the interesting thing is story.

My last GM experience was with a group who hadn't played in ages so we had a little AD&D 1e nostalgia game. It was meant to be a one-off. It ran for weeks instead. At the beginning, it was "we are 5th level nobodies breaking out of jail to rescue our friend". A few levels later it was "our friend's dead; now we're helping the wife (a succubus who turned good because our friend converted her with his love)". A few levels later it was "we're avenging the dead friend by taking down the evil baron who killed him".
Last few levels: The dead friend was actually evil working to become a lich and had been playing everyone all along.

That's the kind of progression *I'd* rather play. But I prefer drama. Numbers are just numbers.

P.s. wanna ramp up the drama angst level to insane amounts? Have a tearful "i thought you loved me" reunion with an NPC and his hubby and then the hubby fireballs the wife in front of the players. "i lied". Ouch!

Mandramas said...

Regarding Superheroes RPG; I think that it could start with a limited, mob urban story, like Punisher. Then, you progress to national challenges, then to planetary menaces, then to cosmic, universe-threatening foes.

MTN said...

this reminds me a lot the red/blue/green/black/gold DnD boxed sets. Every set was there to supply the players a different approach to the game. Same as classic ADnD, but in the Frank Mentzer DnD it was written on the box, and everything was centered around the idea that the game was CHANGING as the levels goes up (and the players learn "how to" play the game).

bombasticus said...

I still want to see the system where characters "advance" by getting small.

"You know what he said once? He said he felt he was advancing in the Army, but in a different direction from everybody else. He said that when he'd get his first promotion, instead of getting stripes he'd have his sleeves taken away from him. He said when he'd get to be a general, he'd be stark naked. All he'd be wearing would be a little infantry button in his navel."

Syrus W. said...

I think I've noticed this on some level as a GM. I definitely feel more weight on me as a storyteller in my supers game than when I ran D&D.

While this does probably weaken a game in terms of sales I kind of like it. My player's have never been more interested in the setting and story that's going on.

I usually try and make my games more player focused but it's kind of nice when they actually care about the world around them.

I've also noticed that they act much more like a team rather than a loose group of badass individuals. They care less about their own progression and more of the group's progression/survival.

It's more of a challenge to run but it's definitely a nice change of pace.

Thomas M. said...

Very good points, I think I've noticed this in my roll-your-own campaign, I had put a lot of the aimless feeling of the players down to having too many options, it could also be that they don't know where they're "going" because they don't see a natural progression (there are no levels, you gradually pay points to up your attributes or skills over time).

I'd like it to be exploration/finding interesting/powerful things; I can see how that is a lot more contingent on my skill as a GM whereas in D&D they can see that carrot, be it Wish or what have you.

Zotpox said...

Idea...

Thats it! Thats the idea! that will make play in this same campaign 8 months from now be fundamentally different than it is tonight!


The simple notion that ideas come at you from every aspect of every day life are what give these games vitality and fresh apeal.

Stomping around the webs and spotting various new to you doodad's ah la "thisiswhyimbroke.com" and thinking to yourself that gives me an Idea for a new _____ or a new way to use _____ that is currently culturally relevant or just cool/cheesy.

Maby your answer for shadowrun?

Zak S said...

@rocco

The difference between planar travel and magic missile is not just numbers. no matter what playstyle you're into.

Denim said...

Shadowrun: In eight months your characters will have contributed to the collapse of a AA corp/gang/small nation, and will be on the run from at least three different security firms. Most of the change in SR4 comes from new toys, new scars and new enemies.
Sound about right?

Michael Moscrip said...

Actually, in Traveller your skills and even attributes improve as you go along. I think that's pretty quantifiable. Or did I miss your point? Sorry, if so.

Zak S said...

Michael--

Do those increases change the gameplay (who you fight, where you fight? How you fight?) or does the world simply scale up to compensate?

How concrete is this perception that things will be different in the PCs' minds?

Michael Moscrip said...

Zak- that's a good point. Our Traveller campaign didn't last long enough for me to say from experience. It definitely makes it easier to succeed at things and to try more difficult things, but as far as the game world scaling up.. It's not intrinsically in the rules that it does, but it would be easy for the GM to make it scale up.

They know that increasing those things is somehow 'A Good Thing' but no, I don't think it's really clear to them what actual difference in play might result. It would depend a great deal on the GM.

Dr. Vector said...

I don't want to thread-hijack, but this brings up the question of how you all typically end campaigns. DO you end them, in-game, or do they either run forever or peter out as game groups change?

It's on my mind because of some changes that have happened in my 1e Star Wars campaign. At first the PCs were exploring the sector and getting a handle on the various powerful factions. Then for a long time--what I now think of as the campaign's middle age--there were enough known entities that I could drop in something and just watch everyone react, and that provided plenty of drama and conflict. But now the PCs are powerful enough that they have started knocking over some of those entities, so the amount of in-game 'stuff' is decreasing (we also just passed ROTJ in the timeline, so there's a limit to how much I can wring out of the Empire from here on out). I don't want it to become Imperial warlord or dark Jedi of the week, and I'm wondering if it's time to make up new characters and start over somewhere else (and maybe in a different setting and system).

urthshu said...

WRT Traveller, I'd find the PCs going from exploration to mercenary actions in about that 8 month timeframe. The game shifted from economics to small army tactics, logistics for troops, invasions & police actions. They went after titles after that, becoming Nobles in the Imperium with attendant fluff and responsibilities.

urthshu said...

Never happen. A soldier is a thing to hang things upon [medals, guns, backpacks, webbing, helmets, knives, gasmasks, body armors, breathing apparatuses, sunglasses, patches, coats, mess kits, first aid kits, GPS markers, etc etc]

urthshu said...

Hrm. When I GM'd I was drawn to shorter-term campaigns. The last one was an "End of the World" campaign, full of portent and prophesies with identified "Movers & Shakers" [important NPCs who were either finding a way to get off-world or working to hasten its end, respectively]. The PCs knew from the outset they had 2 years gametime to figure out what they were going to do, but otherwise the timeline was set in stone.

Tedankhamen said...

The trouble is finding the time and players for that 8 month campaign like we played back in the day. I would cite this as the reason why rules lites have proliferated - why go heavy when you're not going to see half of it anyway? And the thought of skipping levels so we can play superhero is unappealing to me - I don't want it unless I've earned it. I think that's a sentiment most grognards share. In fact, I'd go so far as to say OD&D doesn't give enough opportunity for change over time. I'm toying with giving players a point of Growth every time their character levels up that could be used to add 1 to an attribute, buy a background, or use as a Luck point to cheat death or disfigurement.

bombasticus said...

I like being goaded! Got a few projects to wrap first, then you're on.

John Johnson said...

The longest campaign I ever ran was a 7th Sea one, which lasted just over a year. Most of it consisted of the players shuffling off to different places and having adventures. When I actually threw a meta plot at them, the game collapsed.

Of course that may have had more to do with half the group moving out of town than the fact that there was a meta plot about to happen.

Since then I haven't run any long term campaigns.

John Johnson said...

I've never had any interest in the supers genre for rpgs, and now I'm wondering if it's because of this lack of change. I would actually love to play a supers game that's all about the first 1/3rd of the super's story where he's figuring out what his power is and what it does and the grief it brings him from the evil guys.

Basically Unbreakable, and ending it where the movie ended with an acknowledgement of "I'm a superhero".

fetfreak said...

you're pretty right here.. My friends and I have taken out, commoner to a demigod progression in our dnd games since we really don't like that and we did kind of hit a wall when it comes to "well what happens at lvl 9 that is not happening on lvl 1?" and we solved it by world events. At lvl 1 players get simple mercenary work and some gold in return for a job well done but at lvl 9 "work" finds them. Foreign force might invade their country, political turmoil, global magical disasters, thousands of monsters bursting from a mountain, lake, or a forest and so on. So when villages are burning around them, people getting killed and so forth, players can help their country men, save a lord, turn the tides of war, kill the queen of monsters and in the end they could become war heroes, receive titles and lands, or just get a shit load of gold. One more thing we use is that once players are satisfied with their current characters and want some mayor progression (usually at lvl 6) we hit a rest button. This is the time player's characters spent being lazy, spending the wealth they earned, learning a new craft and so forth. While years go by something is happening in the background and when it happens it is much more believable than having world events happen only months apart. This is also great cause there is a lot of character evolution. An 18 year old rogue is no longer a street rat but a pushing 30 fella who is polishing his craft and so on. Since my players love to role-play this gives them a chance to use a corny lines when meeting old friends and assembling the party once again. I guess in these kind of games the most important thing is player's thrust.

Norman Harman said...

Required for commercial success, ok. But, is it required for critical success?

I'm about to start a new after work for coworkers campaign. And now I'm all paranoid I don't have some meta reason to keep them interested.

Johnstone said...

Except GURPS doesn't do this. Instead it offers the chance to play a whole bunch of different settings all with a familiar set of rules. You *could* use them all for the same campaign, like Rifts, but the books assume they're all for different campaigns.

Other generic systems, like Savage Worlds, follow the same model, pretty much.

Banesfinger said...

Great post Zak
And it brings up a good point about free-form PC advancement (e.g. Savage Worlds, RuneQuest, where the player has complete control of what he advances) vs. pre-set PC advancement (e.g. D&D where new abilities are chosen for you based on your level/class):
In theory, I love the idea of free-form advancement, but there is just 'something' players love about looking ahead 5-6 levels and seeing exactly how 'cool' you're going to be...

Brendan said...

Here's another good example of how D&D play changes as levels increase:

http://1d30.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/magic-changes-resource-management-1e-add/

Dr. Vector said...

That's a kickass idea, which I am stealing. Thanks!