Building a Barn — group campaign creation

Over in the chocolate/peanut butter post, MT said:

I keep thinking that there are challenges that were made by players (character background, character choices in-game), challenges built by GMs (modules and scenarios, world events), and challenges agreed to by the group as a whole (well, more results-oriented “group agrees that that’s the evolution/eventuality). (And maybe system challenges: random encounters?)

I’m going to challenge the term ‘challenge’ as it’s used in this paragraph. I think ‘conflicts’ or ‘potential conflicts’ might be clearer and speak more to what each participant is bringing to the table. Example: “I hate Corwin” is a potential conflict introduced by character background. So is “I love Deirdre.”
Now, in that example above, the best GM-conflict that I can quickly think of is this: “Dierdre wants you to help Corwin” — and I’m shameless — I would totally hit that sucker like a kid getting to ring the dinner bell. It’s not a module or scenario or a world event, but a crisis-point, packed with significance: no matter what the player chooses to do, including nothing, says something very significant about that character, and expands out like a pebble-ripple to color the tone of the whole game. I think that making up good Bangs is really all the prep you need to do for a lot of character-oriented games.2 They are of much less use in games like Capes, or they look very different.
Now, you can take this further — you might ask all the players to tie themselves into three NPCs from a pre-set list, giving them a relationship to them where something important is at risk; you might ask each player for a ‘super-bang’ of their own devising — something that happens at the beginning of play that takes ‘the way things are’ and makes it impossible to simple ‘continue as i have been’ — there’s lots of ways to get the players to give you more player-authored conflicts or potential conflicts. 3

I think that’s a different (if related by marriage) issue. You talk about rewards. I see you looking at how human intervention (GM/PC) connects to game structure (rule-set, etc.) and the resulting rewards. Are you looking mostly at in-game rewards, or does story=reward? (Or both? Or neither?)

Both. Definitely both, especially for these types of games that we’re discussing.1
I’m just going to make this whole initial post an exercise in ripping off Sorcerer ideas for Amber, aren’t I?
What you might do in Amber is require a player-authored Kicker and give that player a “spend” aftere they resolve that Kicker in play — usually, resolving it means the end to that character’s current ‘arc’, and that makes a good point to reassess and reevaluate (and spend points! Woo!) Then they write up a new Kicker for the next session, and play continues.4
The out of game reward requires a little meta-talk about what the theme is going to be in the game. “Family Loyalty” or “The Worth of a Promise” or “Paying Your Debts” or something. (I’d give you an example from one of my Amber games, but I really can’t — I don’t think we had one.) Once that’s done, and the GM is constructing Bangs that (a) hit those ‘flags’ the players built into their characters and (b) echo back into the agreed-on theme, you get that non-mechanical “dude, cool” moments out of play that equates to a non-game reward.
Footnotes below (so that I can pretend this post isn’t as long as it really is).


1 – I.e.: Narr games, in which the mechanical reward comes when you address theme in a conflict and the social reward comes from that ‘dude, cool’ moment when a scene really resonates. In a gamist-type game, the mechanical award comes from overcoming tactical challenge, and the social reward comes from that ‘dude, cool’ moment when you really put ‘your guy’ into some risk in order to step up and beat the challenge. The social reward in Sim games comes in the ‘dude, cool’ moment when you really evoke the setting in a way that makes it easy to immerse in, I think.
2 – In narr-jargon terms, that crisis point is a ‘bang’. It’s a decision point that the character can’t ignore (or where ignoring is a choice they can make that means something), where the decision says something about the character that maybe we didn’t know before. In prep for most of my games, I come up with about three Bangs for each character, and the resulting events/actions/conflicts that involve or stem from those Bangs will easily fill a game session — I don’t do any kind of prep beyond that, and reminding myself to have NO SOLUTION OR PREDICTIONS OF THEIR CHOICES IN MIND.
3 – Entirely stolen from the Sorcerer concept of Kickers. Kickers and Bangs are probably the most-cribbed parts of the Sorcerer RPG.
4 – Or they switch to a new guy or something. Whatever.


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14 Replies to “Building a Barn — group campaign creation”

  1. “I think that making up good Bangs is really all the prep you need to do for a lot of character-oriented games.2”
    I’ll have to disagree with that statement. Maybe that’s true if you are really good at winging stuff on the fly. I think in actuality many GMs prefer to have some notion of the consequences of any particular choice made by the player in response to their bang ahead of time. They will prep an “either/or” scenario, or possibly even a multiple choice one so that they aren’t caught taking game time to think things through after a player decides how his character will react.
    In your example, suppose the player decides he loves Dierdre more than he hates Corwin so he agrees to her request. Knowing how that will effect other NPC’s (*cough Eric cough*) actions is something most GMs will want to have thought about in advance, because the consequences may come into play really quickly. Likewise if the player stiffs Dierdre in order to oppose Corwin, knowing how will she react and who else will get involved ahead of time allows the GM to present the new environment without mistakes in logic or consistency. Retcons because the GM didn’t think consequences through are a pain in the ass and disrupt the story flow.
    Bangs, kickers and relationship maps are useful tools, but they don’t fully substitute for GM prep (i.e. forethought and planning) unless the GM is really talented. No GM will be able to predict all possibilities ahead of time, but knowing your players gives you an edge on making a lot of educated guesses about where the story will go given any particular bang. That helps in providing believable consequences.

  2. Okay… I see your points. Allow me to offer a counter proposal to working all that stuff out ahead of time.
    You’re going to hit the player with the bang “Deirdre wants you to help Corwin.”
    Once the player’s decision is made, you:
    1. Play the hell out of the NPCs.
    That’s it.
    If your Eric-at-that-moment is pissed, play him pissed. If you’re Diedre at the moment decides she’s so happy with you she gives you a little love bite and sends you off into Arden with a dazed expression, go for it.
    But why prep it and think it out? You don’t know what your players are going to do, so why sweat it?
    Key Point:
    I don’t think that doing it this way requires “a GM who is really talented,” because players do this all time.
    * They don’t know what’s going to happen.
    * Something happens.
    * They react, playing their characters.
    Will you have to sit down after the session and go ‘okay, shit… what all happened? What is everyone going to do now?’ Sure — that’s the meat of the next round of Bangs.
    But I just don’t think you need to go any further than that.
    1. Set up the conflict.
    2. Play the hell out of the NPCs during whatever happens.

  3. Okay, I’ll quibble words. “I hate Corwin” and “I love Deirdre” are not conflicts, they are … well, they just *are*, the same as “I have a sword” and “I know how to use it” just *are*. Call them attributes. (The latter two are different, since they don’t involve feelings. Maybe, “I love my sword” and “I enjoy a good fight.”)
    “Deidre wants me to help Corwin,” on the other hand, is a conflict, because it puts two otherwise simple descriptions into conflict. How do I react? What do I do? How does that change over time? How do my feelings change over time (“How could she put me through this?” “Hey, Corwin isn’t a half bad egg!”), or do they (“Poor, Deirdre, to be a sibling of such a bastard, I love her all the more!” “Corwin’s incessant whistling will drive me to cutting his throat in the night!”)?
    I’ll have to disagree with that statement. Maybe that’s true if you are really good at winging stuff on the fly. I think in actuality many GMs prefer to have some notion of the consequences of any particular choice made by the player in response to their bang ahead of time. They will prep an “either/or” scenario, or possibly even a multiple choice one so that they aren’t caught taking game time to think things through after a player decides how his character will react.
    Shakily raises hand.
    I would like to try this some time. One of my great weakenesses as a GM, frankly, is the crutch of what’s already written in my prep, and improvising out or around it when the players (inevitably) come up with something new.
    Yes, I’m sure, if I practiced (sees hints winged his way) I’d be better at it.
    Actually, the best I think I did at this sort of thing was, in fact, my Amber game, where I knew the NPCs and the underlying plots so well, and so could adjust to the players’ surprises. In a more rigid scenario (IDC), not so much.

  4. I’ll point out that in the orignal post I mentioned “conflicts” and “potential conflicts”, and by your POV, ‘I hate/love someone.’ falls into the latter category.
    I’d argue that “I hate Corwin” does mean you’re in conflict with Corwin, but that’s splitting hairs.
    As to trying that out sometime?
    I do it — and I’m telling you (again) I am Not. That. Smart.
    (I mean… look at my TYPING, for pete’s sake.)

  5. Key Point:
    I don’t think that doing it this way requires “a GM who is really talented,” because players do this all time. * They don’t know what’s going to happen. * Something happens. * They react, playing their characters.

    Ah, but (and I know you’ll cackle with glee when you hear this, spotting the fallacy in my assertion), the GM is responsible for the story.
    Cough. Well, yeah, that’s kind of goofy. But, fact is, regardless of how collaborative, the story-telling, I’m going to feel that the guy who called us all together (whether you or me) bears at least some responsibility for things going smoothly, for something of a plot or a theme or a coherent opposition.
    But, I hear you reply, that’s just what you get around by getting the players to come up with bangs and hooks and stuff like that. They write the story along with you.
    Mmmmmaybe. But a story by committee is not necessarily a great story. The GM (except when the game structures him or her strictly as a peer, e.g., Roach) *does* have some responsibility for weaving those player stories into something greater than a bunch of improv.
    Now, it’s not just either/or. I think the GM can deal with that by simply having a strong sense of some underlying story (into which the player threads can be woven), and some primary characters (plus lesser, less complicated, NPCs) to bounce around the players. Amber works wickedly well for this, because (a) everyone knows (kindamostly) about the NPCs, and (b) the GM knows what they’re really after. A less well-fleshed background, not so much.
    Maybe.

  6. I’ll point out that in the orignal post I mentioned “conflicts” and “potential conflicts”, and by your POV, ‘I hate/love someone.’ falls into the latter category.
    I’d argue that “I hate Corwin” does mean you’re in conflict with Corwin, but that’s splitting hairs.

    A conflict requires a change in the status quo — a need to decide, consequences, costs, benefits (known or unknown). Without those, it’s just stasis. I hate Osama Bin Ladin. It doesn’t represent a conflict until that hatred comes into play in a decision I have to make (“I run into him on a train.” “I am taught about the need to forgive and love my enemies, even OBL.” “Deirdre tells me to help OBL against Corwin.”)
    *Anything* is a potential conflict. “I have a sword” is a conflict if a thief tries to take it. “I am blonde” is a conflict if I’m in a land where blondes are hated.
    But, quibbling. I understand your point.

  7. I do it — and I’m telling you (again) I am Not. That. Smart.
    1. It’s not smarts, its cleverness and poise.
    2. Don’t sell yourself short.
    3. It’s also practice, I readily admit.
    🙂
    Just need to find a subject and system I like. Heck, maybe *I* should run DitV …

  8. I’ll give you another example in both of the Sorcerer games.
    Granted, the first one suffered a bit from lack of rules familiarity, and the second from taking two full-sized groups and rolling them into one over-sized group, howevah:
    They both worked. They both came to a conclusion that was driven to by the players. (Ask me sometime what I thought Grimm Therapy was GOING to be about — you’ll laugh at how far off I was.)
    Same thing with the Spring Fountain HQ game.
    Does Bang-style play work with pre-written scenarios? Not so much. Pre-written stuff makes it a lot harder to just go with the player-flow, really.
    If your use:
    * Relationship map with NPCs you can just jump in and play
    * A bandolier of Bangs to keep the pacing moving
    * A ‘theme’ that ties said Bangs and the motivations of the NPCs together…
    You can play.
    Is this the only way to prep? HECK no.
    Does it work? Yes.
    ((Just as importantly, it’s easier to do with limited time during the week! 🙂 ))

  9. Oh… see… You running DitV?
    yes. Hee. *jumps around*
    And actually, making up the Town does give you a level of prep (explanation: you build a new Relationship Map every time) that you might find comforting, but at the same time being ’empty’ as far as ‘what will they do’* and just Playing the Town.
    * – I think the hardest thing about DitV is not having any expectations as to how the town should be fixed — sitting back and watching who the players decide is in the right and the wrong.

  10. Ron Edwards says Vincent ‘hand holds’ in DitV, during the whole “Building a Town” section, because he puts this lovely section in there that leads you step by step through a process, and when you’re done:
    * You have a relationship map.
    * You have motivated NPCs that want stuff (and no stats, since you don’t need em yet).
    * You have a pile of Bangs you can throw at anyone who steps in view.
    Vincent just calls it “a town.” 🙂

  11. “If your Eric-at-that-moment is pissed, play him pissed. If you’re Diedre at the moment decides she’s so happy with you she gives you a little love bite and sends you off into Arden with a dazed expression, go for it.
    But why prep it and think it out? You don’t know what your players are going to do, so why sweat it?”
    Because just “being pissed” is entirely two dimensional if that’s all there is. Being pissed means taking action, and that action should be reasoned out (especially in an Amber game).
    Sorry- I would continue but our power is going out again.

  12. Hence my comments on there being some sort of over (or under) plot. Without it, it’s all just Brownian Motion, ELIZA NPCs. That doesn’t mean a module, but knowing that Deirdre has been looking for someone to work with her in her scheme against Julian, she may very intentionally be giving you a love bite and sending you off into Arden with a dazed expression. She may enjoy it, too, and be very happy, but …
    … well, of course, the Elders would be assumed to have over/underplots by the Juniors, so even if you don’t have any, some will manage to shake out by group consensus anyhow. (One of the joys of GMing Amber is listening to the players speculating about what’s going on. You can get some really great ideas that way, too … unintentionally consensual story-telling …).
    Or, put a different way, the major NPCs should have their own bangs/hooks/plans/schemes. Especially in Amber.
    Which isn’t to say that Eric or Deidre can’t or shouldn’t be spontaneous, in reaction to the PCs’ spontaneity, just that their plots, plans, and so forth are part of their characters, part of what *makes* them Eric or Deidre. And, in fact, that’s true for any NPC worth their salt.

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