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Situations not Maps

I have long liked adventures that are less a flow chart of events (a map of dungeon rooms is the traditional RPG flow chart) and are more “unstable situations” in which player characters become embroiled. The Players then choose how their characters try to change or take advantage of unfolding events.

Thinking back, I realize that this was what excited me about the first megadungeon I ever tried to run in high school, the Judge’s Guild Caverns of Thracia, in which there were factions that the Players could align with or play off each against each other. I was eager to see what the Players would do – to have them create the story and plot (as it turned out they mostly just killed things).

A situation-based adventure is built around conflict and factions, with places and things being the subjects and tools in the conflict but not the starting point. The key design elements are thus the NPC’s while places and things provide grist for the conflict and memorable set piece episodes.  There have been some very good things posted by various people over the years about using conflict to create RPG situations.

I find WFRP supports such a more narrative, open to player initiative style of gaming while giving a strong array of crunchier tactical options to Players and GMs that works well for this situation-based approach.  It's certainly not the only game to allow focus on story and conflict not mapping 10' squares but it does a good job of still keeping tactical decisions and character creation choices.

In published scenarios examples are Edge of Night in which the heroes can choose the noble faction they support at the Masquerade Ball and Witch’s Song in which they can choose very different responses to the Witch Hunter’s arrival. These are good examples of how situations can include key events or locations such as the Masquerade Ball or the Witch Hunter’s Arrival, while letting Players choose how they interact.

This kind of play works better with WFRP’s narrative approach to locations (e.g., location cards) than with the D&D system I was long playing in before. The last edition of D&D needs attention to encounter design and mapping – a fun encounter in D&D is like an amusement park ride of physical and other events and things to interact with and trigger. This requires more preparation and puts more pressure on play to be linear – to stick to a map, making it harder to create fluid situations while still using the system’s strengths.

At the other end of the complexity spectrum are systems like In a Wicked Age which is completely narrative and situation-based. IAWA is a fun game I recommend (cheap too!) and drives home that story is about character and conflict. WFRP seems to hit a sweet spot of providing more “crunch” in character design and options than a simple system such as IAWA while being free flowing enough in play that specific locations and scenes can be made up on the fly.

Situations still need “through lines”, the “what if Players are passive” sequence of events, but don’t require a GM force Player down that course.

What the D&D experience can still teach is that fun encounters often involve interacting with the scenery whether it’s chandeliers, braziers of hot coals, pits to jump across or lecherous nobles and trays of drinks. WFRP GM’s and Players can both bring these things in with location cards, with narration simply roleplaying for bonus dice, or spending fortune points to create resources - however both Players and GMs do better with some "cues" to respond to than pulling things out of pure imagination.

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tcpip
Jun. 6th, 2013 03:15 am (UTC)
Some of the early Iron Crown modules were like this, especially The Iron Wind, Cloudlords of Tanara, and Vog Mur. In each of these an explosive situation is described which the PCs are just about to stumble on - and it's left there for the GM to follow through.

Also, Frank The Goat tells me it's time to say "Happy birthday!"

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