#RPGaDay2020 Day 21 - "Push"
A Whiny Revelation:
The only thing worse that writing a trilogy is writing a trilogy when you didn't mean to. Yet that seems to be what I am about to do with today's essay.
Two days ago, my prompt was the word "Tower" and the article ended up being about where I get my inspirations for new and interesting story ideas. Yesterday, the word was "Investigate", and I wrote about how I use study and investigation to present more realistic elements in my world building and the story elements I present to the players.
And now, today's word is "Push" and I thought that I'd write about ways that I push outside of my own comfort zone to avoid retreading the same paths in my extended campaigns. And that is certainly a good topic...but it means I've written a trilogy on my creative process over the last three days--without meaning to.
On to the Essay
One's comfort zone is a great place to be safe and predictable and to know that you can handle whatever goes on, because it's what you're good at. But it is not a place to grow-and it can get old quickly. As an IT supervisor, I am always working with my employees on their development and my first tool is to look at new experiences that can help them both try something new, and realize that they are capable of doing those things.
As a GM and even as a player, I don't like treading the same roads as I've done before. Actually, after what was effectively a 4-5 year campaign as a player, we started a new story, and I made a point of building a character who was as unlike my previous character as possible. I was formerly a charismatic trickster mage who uses magic and innate skills to bend others to his will. The new character is a hobgoblin bard who has no diplomatic or bluffing skills--who instead focuses on playing music, talking to animals, and the generally useless "medicine" skill. Why? Because it's too easy for me to play the other type, and I want to try something as different as possible for the next 4-5 years of playing.
As a GM, I also need to get out of my comfort zone. It not only keeps things fresh and but also let's me learn. Even though I'm trying to deliver the best experience I can as a GM, the collaborative experience means that I should be doing new things as I do when I'm a player, and I should be able to trust the players to work with the new things I'm trying. If they don't work, I'll learn and/or take the good parts and do something else next time.
That said, here are some specific things I've tried or am trying, which are out of my comfort zone.
Trying new situations
There are some themes that are common in the fantasy genre, and of those some take a starring role in my stories. Inns, taverns, castles, jails, noble houses, cave systems, temples and guards and lords and merchants and toughs who inhabit them.. These are strong elements because they are infused with personalities, magic and secrets, which makes telling stories in them easy.
When the first of my long campaign party his 17th level,. I gave them one more adventure to let them try their 9th level spells and associated abilities. They used gate to go the place they were headed to...and found themselves on a plane of highly lawful creatures who were pissed that they didn't go through the main planar entrance. The inhabitants holy-worded the party, and the half who were left had to wait in a line and fill out forms at the correct gate while the rest of the party made their way back.
In that same adventure, the party had to pilot flying rocks against the people they were after. It was the first-ever usage of a celestial orca, who threw himself on to the opposing rock, and knocked some of the opponents off.
I also put the party into a literal bedtime story, which was a morality tale told to children in a foreign country, and they had to track down one of the items from that story in a hybrid between the current world and the story world.
These were all fun, but I had to create a whole new environment and/or a whole new way of the party interacting with it. Just as it was not well-trod space for them, it was not for me either. I had to be read to ad-lib while providing the sense that I wasn't just making it up as I went along (which I often had to do, because the players do player things that are hard to preduct.)
Trying new mechanics
This is more about looking through the books, and figuring out glitches or weird situations in the rules. I first got the idea for this when my co-gm figured out that tower shields, if used fully defensively, basically eliminated damage from all sides. We had to figure out new ways of dealing with both them and the environment and other people around them, while ending up with these unkillable blocks of wood.
But there are other things that just aren't used. Almost nobody uses trip attacks. Almost nobody uses certain spells; Almost nobody counterspells; Nobody every puts the ghost template on plants. These things all make for interesting and memorable encounters. So it's worth going through the rule books, looking for things that your eyes have always passed over, and then think...I could make a situation out of that.
In both of these cases above, part of the risk is that sometimes it is too effective, or it feels too much like you are deliberately going after player weaknesses. In some cases, it doesn't work because "Yeah, nobody does that because they get killed when they do."
I've also created new mechanics a few times, which turn one type of encounter into a different one. One recent one was a "defeat the champion" encounter, where the champion was limited by how much damage they could take in round. So maybe they had 100 hps, but they could only take 10 hps per round. So people who burned their big attacks were often left more vulnerable as the behemoth didn't go down. It was a 1:1 combat which went a minimum of 10 rounds. Several members of the party went down to it (not dead...it became non-lethal after the combat was over.) and it was finally somebody realizing that they needed to not get hit, but only had to hit once per round to do the max damage. Fighting defensively, moving and staying up were the key elements of winning the fight.
The risk here was that wasn't a real mechanic, and would the players enjoy it and would it make for the sort of story I was going for. As it turned out, the answer to both questions was "yes", but it was definitely going outside my comfort zone to break the rules so dramatically, especially in what was going to be a critical aspect of the story line.
Be Really Experimental
There have been times when I really went outside the normal rules to try something new. I mentioned before that I put the players at a famous battle in the past...there were thousands on both sides, and as individual combatants they would have been completely useless. And while there have been "party vs army" or "party as part of army" mechanics created in the past, I've never really liked them. So I assigned the party to specific assignments...steal the key; disable the weapon, etc. If the party was successful, the army would be successful. If they weren't the army might fail, potentially changing history. It was somewhat successful, but was not something I'd do again. It was a bit too narrative and felt a bit contrived...but the players had reasonable fun, and it was worth trying once.
On the other hand, I ran a convention game which ends in a fight between two kaiju. The party clearly could not affect that, but they did have abilities that could improve the town they were in, and I narrated the battle, and went around the table asking each person what they were doing to either save the town or improve the outcome of the battle. This increased their engagement with their characters, and made them a part of the narrative. This was definitely not a part of the story, but it was so successful that I did it the next two times I ran the story.
Bringing in the Fae
I love the idea of the Fae; I loved the early Merry Gentry books. I loved Changeling: The Dreaming; I love Neil Gaiman's depiction of that world, whether from Stardust or Instructions. And independent of all of that, I have a very heavy dream element in Trinity.
So I brought a series of encounters with the fae into my previous campaign. My challenge was to make them relatable, engaging, give the party a reason to care about their internal battles and ultimately engage with them, even if they considered it uncomfortable and weird. The risk here is not only making it enjoyable, but also not turning it into a "Greg's trying something" encounter--which it was, but it wasn't supposed to feel like that.
The party encountered one fae; then later encountered a ranking member of the Unseelie and her own court, of which the first fae was part. The party had to interact with the fae, play their games, show proper respect and try to respect the hierarchy, when they had no idea what that was. And when two fae were sent to help them, figure out if they were really there to help, hurt or spy.
The presentation of the fae themselves went extremely well, with the party's mage, who worshiped Lotar the Fool, expressing a desire to retire to them. A few members of the fae were given gifts of great value (sentimental value...they were nearly useless as items) and those items played a role through the rest of the game. (Shoes of +2 dancing checks for winning a contest.)
As part of the greater story..it was okay. It didn't affect the story as much as I thought, but if I had brought them back in a later encounter, I think there would have been a welcome reunion.
The New Campaign
My final example is the most out-of-the-box I've gone, in three ways:
First, am going with a 90% sandbox game. The party tells me what they want to do, and I just apply prepared materials as appropriate to help them. Sandbox is dangerous, because while it's fun in a video game, in an RPG, the players need a reason and purpose to show up. So you have to give them those things, while they are in fact in control of what's going on.
Also, I've got two new mechanics I'm trying: Personal Connections and Goals. The Connections is that each player has a connection to another member of the party that they choose. This wasn't too much of a risk, but is a huge change from my previous two campaigns where the party was "people who signed up to join a military group." (I'll write a whole article on this, and how it's worked at a later date.)
The other technique is personal goals. This is much more of a challenge because with 7 or 8 players, it means I've got 7 or 8 storylines going on. I have to actively keep those storylines at the forefront of my mind--what can I do next to bring it forward. How can player actions advance them. What coincidences might help the story, without just handing them the answers. This is semi-successful. So far there are a few players who are really enjoying their goals, and a few which are less active.
The their major thing I'm trying is that it's an Urban game. I've never run one of those, and my cities are generally not that interesting. They are a place to meet people buy equipment and get hooks for the next adventure. Can I keep a campaign interesting without pushing the party to other cities or other planes. I don't know yet. I've bought three books on the subject to figure out how others have done it.
So in summary, I am always looking for the next new thing to try. Some things I try are easy. Some are harder, but they work. Others only have elements that work--and the key is here to identify what they are for future usage. And while I haven't had any epic disasters in a long time, I've definitely had things that left me or the players going "meh." But the goal is to keep pushing, keep inventing, keep looking outside my comfort zone--and helping both my stories and my world grow.