Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Literature, Series, Campaigns, Killer GM's, and Attention Spans

I've been accused of having a short attention span, and this is not necessarily inaccurate at all times. The most obvious exception is when gaming - and, even then, I sometimes need a break (and that break can be a very good thing).

One of my favorite games of all time is Empires in Arms. Even a cursory glance at it will warn you that it has a significant play time. It's a long game. BGG estimates 100 hours of play, and that's not necessarily off.

Remember how I keep saying, "Your game is not literature, there are significant differences." Here is another key difference: PC's in an adventure are at risk of both failure and death. After about book five, I have trouble believing that of characters in novels.

Some of you have seen part of this discussion elsewhere. Please bear with me.

The best example of this that I have found so far is the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. By the end of every book, the protagonist is in a better condition than before. Sure, she may be injured, and one or more characters in her orbit (as it were) may be dead, but Honor herself will have a promotion or a medal, and the tiny Kingdom of Manticore will be in an improved position politically. Oh - and whatever trouble she's in will have magically fixed itself. Is it a universe I'd like to game in? Absolutely1. But I lost interest in the books when they same pattern repeated itself over and over and over again.

The same goes for the Dresden Files novels. Every book, Harry gets tangled in something more powerful than him. Sometimes, it's a client. Sometimes it's someone cashing in one of those favors he owes. Sometimes, it's just bad luck. But he manages to squeak through. And after every book, he owes more and more people bigger and bigger favors, which occasionally serve as plot hooks for the next book - or for a few books down the line. I gave up after five books or so, even though the writing style got better and better. Again: A setting in which I'd love to game2.

By about the fifth book, I had stopped fearing for the protagonist in both cases.

It's another reason I like playing with Killer GM's: The protagonist(s) are continually at risk of losing.

For the record: There are settings and series I've been able to read past the first trilogy without a problem. Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy, for example. The setting has continued for nine books, now. The initial three books about Fitzchivalry Farseer, then three books elsewhere in the setting, and then three more books focusing back on Fitz.

Part of that is because Hobb is cruel enough to her protagonist that you're pretty sure he's going to fail. In fact, she even kills the lead character at one point. Yes, you read that correctly. The series also didn't grow stale for me because of the three-book break that moved it elsewhere in the setting. By the time we return to Fitz, he's not the same as he was before - he's older and ... changed. I don't know that he's necessarily more bitter, but he's not exactly the same as he had been.

It's one reason I enjoy one-shots so much. See, I'm not usually a killer GM. But in a one-shot, players don't usually grow as attached to their characters, so I have no compunctions about killing them off. In a campaign, I get nervous about it because players grow attached to their characters. In fact, when I run campaigns, I'll often call a halt for a few weeks or months. And usually I'll tell players, "We're taking a break from the campaign. During the break, five years will pass. Tell me what happens to your character in that time, and I'll give you appropriate XP." And Advantages and Disadvantages, as appropriate. It allows those characters to grow and change, but not always in the direction given so far. Sometimes, I'll run a solo adventure or two with those players so they can get an idea of how the setting has changed or is changing. Sometimes these solo one-shots spark ideas for me which allows me to continue the game.

For example, I ran an L5R game for a long time. I ignored the metaplot for the most part. At one point, I declared a break, as the game was going stale and I didn't know how to continue. During the break I decided that the Hantei Emperor died without a clear heir, leading to a power struggle. The PC's individually chose sides in the resulting power struggle during a series of solo one-shots which started a few weeks after the game started its hiatus. Not all of the PC's chose the same side. By the time the game was off hiatus, I'd decided who won the power struggle.

During the hiatus, I also ran a few one-shots, and had a chance to play in a few of them.

I asked the players to keep the solo scenarios quiet, because I wanted them to be surprises when the group met again.

When the campaign restarted, the PC's were tasked with ending the struggle and healing the Empire - starting with the rifts which developed within the group. It made for a much-invigorated and interesting game with lots of actual role-playing going on.

1 Ad Astra apparently has has the RPG rights to the setting - and it's a setting I'd play in. Provided the PC's didn't have to cross paths with the title character.

2 Evil Hat has these rights - and I already preordered.

No comments:

Post a Comment