I wanted to take some time to comment on what Doug said in the previous post, to elaborate a bit, and to speak from the GM’s perspective on what the ending of our Heroes of Karia Vitalus campaign was like. I too found the game very rewarding, and I learned a ton through this campaign about GMing and game design.
It Actually Ended
Doug is right, having a game come to a definitive conclusion is important. I wrote a lot about how to accomplish a good ending in the first post in this series. What I do want to say here though is that the ending ought to be big enough to account for the breadth of your story. My biggest task in this game since we’d built such an impressive scale was to come up with a way to end things that didn’t feel like it left any major questions unanswered. I wanted the players to walk away satisfied that they hadn’t missed out on any content. That involved a lot of accounting for the variety of storylines in play over the last 5 sessions. I literally spent 5 whole sessions trying to wrap up storylines I knew I wanted resolved. Finally, I ended up asking players to provide epilogues for characters who could use even more resolution.
Player Created and Managed NPC’s
Having players create and control certain NPC’s ended being and awesome aspect of this game. I am a story/plot driven GM. When I sit down to write a session of a campaign I begin by asking what plot points I want to come up during the evening. I try and find gentle ways of introducing those elements that don’t feel like railroading, but nevertheless it is my starting point. Given that, I often find that my NPC’s need more depth or they end up being tools in the service of my plot rather than full-fleshed characters. Having players involved in the NPC creation process freed me up to focus on plot more while knowing that the game would be populated with fascinating people. The favorite NPC’s of the campaign all ended up being player creations (with the exception of one burly Gogajin hero of mine).
I ended up seeing my primary role as the GM being that of “Master Weaver”. I spent most of my time trying to find clever ways to weave together the material my players provided me in a way that fit with the meta-story I’d already created. This brings me to a point I’d like to make about how I think this kind of story game works, which is that the GM retains a significant degree of control over the story. From the beginning it was clear to everyone involved that any NPC created or fact added to the story or the world was mine to do with as I pleased. Out of respect for my players and because the goal of a game is to have fun, I tried to use their NPC’s in ways that I knew they would approve of, however, I felt free to co-opt their characters in service of the central plot. In fact, that is partly what made the process so cool – they got to see their creations become a major part of the ongoing story. It was a mutual process of discovery. I saw new elements pop into existence which added depth and provided new opportunities for story, and they got to see those elements develop in unexpected and surprising ways.
For example, one character Jin-Kalys, was originally created as a possible alternate PC if we experienced a PC death. However he ended being worked into the story to such a degree that, though he never became a PC, he was pivotal in central plot events. We could not go back and tell the story of this game without including his contribution. Yet he was not in my design from the outset. The same is true of another favorite NPC, Aimi, who was created as an adversary of one PC and a sister of another. I took Aimi and used her for a series of great encounters and as a way to complicate the storyline, which would never have happened if she hadn’t been created for me by my players.
The importance of having one person, probably the GM, kind of overseeing the story is that most players get to enjoy the experience of not having the big picture – only seeing what is right in front of them. Someone, however, needs to be actively tying these things together or you end up with a scattershot of disconnected story bits that could be pretty unsatisfying.
The Game Blog
The blog was really where alot of this back and forth storytelling happened. The process of shared story is alchemical and mysterious, but there are some elements I can identify which might help encourage it.
First – Get everyone to agree about the setting and the kind of story your telling. If you all are familiar with the genre and style it will help. Use common inspiration. For this game we were all familiar with Anime in general as well as specific inspirations like the Final Fantasy series of games. We could all speak the same language and envision similar situations. This is crucial to building shared imaginary space.
Second – Have the primary storyteller do a fair amount of preparation getting the backbone of the story in place and making it clear to your players what the meta-plot is. In our case the meta-plot was saving the world from destruction by the return of “The Enemy”. Simple, but enough for players to be able to anchor their smaller stories into.
Third- Have the players create characters together and begin telling stories about them right away. Get everyone in the habit of telling stories into the shared imaginary space, filling it in with more detail and richness. After the PC’s are created, the players can go on to create NPC’s in the same way, telling stories about them that enrich the world and fit within the meta-plot the GM has provided.
Fourth – the GM takes those stories and people the players are creating and weaves them into the meta-plot. The GM should work to keep the stories connected, and at a manageable number. I freely killed off NPC’s or otherwise ended their storyline if I didn’t feel I had a good way to integrate them further into the story. Other NPC’s I took and did much more with than the player probably expected because they fit my story well.
There is a special kind of suspension of disbelief required for a game. In order for a game to be a game there has to be uncertainty about the outcome. On the other hand, it would be horrendously unsatisfying to play a 40 session campaign just to have the PC’s die ignominiously in the final session. Everyone secretly knows and agrees that the triumph of the heroes is the preferable outcome, but it would be pretty disappointing if that weren’t felt to be in some kind of jeopardy. So how do we pull off this double trick? Tragedy. The more that the players have real experience of failure, loss and costly sacrifice during the game the more they can buy the premise that the outcome is uncertain. As Doug says, this shouldn’t be done sadistically. In a heroic game tragedy is always a setup for a future triumph. It is satisfying for the PC’s to get whipped by the main villain in a first encounter, because that makes their eventual victory sweet indeed.
Players were allowed time, but not too much
A key aspect of my planning for this entire campaign was to treat every session like an episode of a TV show. Thus I wanted each session to have a flow that included peaks and valleys of action a beginning and an ending (though the ending was often a cliffhanger). I thought of things in TV terminology, using establishing shots for scenes, injecting humor and drama at various points. Making frequent use of flashbacks and dream sequences to break up the action and insert exposition in more interesting ways that just having an NPC talk for a long time.
One aspect of all this thinking about game flow was not wanting their to be such a divide between “role-playing time” and “combat time”. I wanted, if possible, for everything to be role-playing time. So I used the gems to encourage people to do interesting things in combat at least descriptively, but I also just encouraged and deliberately inserted role-playing interludes into combat sequences. Think about when you watch a combat sequence in a movie how it is rarely just 10 minutes of fighting. It is almost always fighting punctuated by dialogue, or they intersperse a scene of combat with another scene.
The best thing about this group of players is that I never had to force them to role-play. Frequently these interludes were even started by the players and all I had to do was to let them happen and then inject them back into the action before things got too bogged down. Everyone intuitively got into the rhythm of fight/dialogue/fight/dialogue so well that I never had an instance where they attacked an NPC prematurely who I intended them to dialogue with – a common occurrence in most games I’ve played in before.
Boy, Doug is right that this is the heart of a good story. I saw it as my number one priority throughout the whole campaign to find a way of making “unexpected” good things come out of the tragedies I already talked about above. Actually surprising players can be challenging, so I’m not sure that I ever really shocked them, but I think a few times they were pleasantly surprised, and even better, I think we all appreciated the poignancy of having NPC’s and situations we’ve been watching build to a climax for a long time have a great story payoff. I consciously worked for their to be iconic “good” NPC moments – such as having Ichirou accept a duel with Ryuunosuke, but using his Mecha. Or for Aimi to reveal that she had not killed Amuro Namie after all.
The final battle was full of Eucatastrophe in the classical Tolkeinian sense. The Gogajin showed up to fight. The Zipsum decided not to attack the refugees. The Prill rescued the Cheldrun by freezing the lake. The Laughers showed up and took care of Kufu. And perhaps the greatest Eucatastrophe – the Kyo Tee Shee turned out to be useful after all when they devoured the Oni at the very end. Really I think a good heroic story can be summed up as Tragedy-Eucatastrophe. Master those two things and you’ll have a great story every time.
We did a lot with this game that could be called set-dressing or props. The players each had individual folders for their characters, color-coded, with dice bags and stuff attached. We started each session with our theme-song and the announcing of the title. These things and many others really helped establish the feel of the game, to mark off the space ritually, and I think did a lot subconsciously to make the game feel like ‘an experience’. These things reinforced the feel that it was an episode in an ongoing TV series, and they served as visual reminders of important game concepts – like the fact that the PC’s represented universal concepts and were attached to a specific spirit called a Kyo Tee Shee.
One of my favorite things, that Doug didn’t mention, were the cards used for the Story Kata – final big events in the game each player could activate. These cards were simple decorated pieces I handed out when a player chose to activate their Story Kata, and the reason I liked them is it made the moment into an event distinguished from other events in the game for which I did not hand out cards. It really nailed home the idea that this was significant. Furthermore, the Story Kata themselves were designed to be rewards for the player – fulfillments of their character concept in a world-spanning sort of way. So handing out cards increased the sense of this event as a reward, something the player gets to hold and see and interact with.
I would encourage doing something similar in almost any game. It is simple to take a 3×5 card and do a little art on the back depicting the reward in question. It is also a great way to handle consumable items or very limited resources. We used the same idea in a Changeling game we ran a while back, and it worked similarly well.