Saturday, December 9, 2017

A very different take on Monster Stats - Part 2 (about complexity, emergence & encounters in LSotN)

I know it's somewhat silent on the blog right now, but it's quite busy behind the scenes, actually. I started writing another module (more on that later this year), made some progress on that other game I started writing (The Grind, maybe some of you remember) and I even got some progress in developing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (magic is finally working! - also worth another post). One part of Lost Songs I'm eager to write is the new concept for how encounters work. So while I started writing this post about how to improvise puzzles in role playing games, I stumbled across something closely related, yet totally different: the underlying assumptions behind the system I'm in the process of writing (you can read Part 1 here, if you like, but it's not necessary to read the post below ... unless you want to know how I intent to apply the ideas formulated below). Maybe there'll be a part 3 soon. We'll see.

Willing to wing it ...

Most games will carry a DM places he didn't (couldn't!) anticipate. Some try their hardest to stay with the script, some go with the flow and see where it's all headed. Now, this is no debate about which one of those styles is "better" because I honestly believe that the two don't really compare that way. They are part of a development, a learning curve we all go through when learning the trade to be a DM.

That said, I also believe that the ability to "wing it" is at the higher end of that spectrum. It's where we embrace and brave the wild nature of the game. There is much to be talked about in this area, of course, as a lot of this is about playing the game beyond what rules tend to offer. However, for today I'll just tackle one of the hurdles we have to master to get away from "scripted" or prepared role playing and that is to improvise continuity to a degree that it feels as genuinely complex as a prepared game would.

"Complexity" is the key word here. Really, do yourself a favor and google that word or follow the link I put in the previous sentence. It's for instance interesting in that you can trust chaos to produce discernible patterns eventually. This may seem like I'm far off topic here, but hear me out on this. Because clever monkeys that we are, we are very able to not only recognize patterns, we are even more capable of giving meaning to those patterns. Not necessarily truth, mind you, but meaning. And while this ability decides about a lot of crucial things in day to day life, it is also a great tool to utilize in gaming.
Title of the pic is complexity_small_version ... [source]
Take any written language as example: you got a couple of easy symbols that connect to somewhat more complex words that connect to sentences which can connect to all kinds of texts, contexts, subtexts and all kind of complex shenanigans. Just imagine someone unable to read the page you are looking at right now and compare it to how meaning emerges with deciphering it bit by bit. Take that and change it to graffiti or all kinds of artsy endeavors using language as a jumping point ... you get my drift. Complexity is all around us and we learn to recognize it.

Another crucial aspect of complex systems is that everything is somehow connected, although often beyond our scope of perception. Or maybe that's just seeing it from another perspective, because context describes the very ability about recognizing the patterns I described above. We just need to see part of a pattern to recognize its origin, sometimes we are even able to pinpoint the general or precise position of an element in the context of the bigger system. You might recognize a language by looking at a sentence or part of a mathematical formula, music, a taste ... stuff like that.

The right amount of complexity?

All of the above is true in a general sense, but it'd be wrong to assume that everyone is a specialist in everything. So when we design puzzles traps or riddles, we should avoid all but the most basic common denominator and go from there. Like, while we cannot all be meteorologists, most of us will be able to come to some right conclusions if the necessary knowledge is part of the emerging pattern.

Emergence, then, deals with the idea that the sum of parts can lead to something else. And while you'll usually find this discussed by going from the results backwards, as this is how we learn to repeat patterns, it most certainly has merit to release chaos and see what pattern emerges from it. Both are extremely useful in gaming.

Says it all ... [source, by Leo Cullu]
Actually, both are two sides of the same coin in that they (generally) describe what the DM knows in context with how that knowledge emerges for the players and how their interactions with that in turn impacts and informs what the DM had established and so on. It's a information based feedback loop between players and DM in which the DM had a pattern prepared and the players explore pieces of it, make sense of it where they can while changing more than they are aware of as the DM puts the new information into context.

Basically, the DM knows the big bad of an area is a lich and what impact that has on all the aspects the setting. That lich is the sum of the parts, so to say, and as the characters explore the setting, a pattern emerges (all the parts separately) for the players to piece it together. A map would be another good example for this: the DM knows and describes it, the players try to recreate it. When they try to draw conclusions about the whole map we have exactly what I'm describing here.

Let's say the players manage to kill the lich. Following the above, it'd end in chaos (the power vacuum) with a new pattern forming (the vacuum is filled somehow). Again, player actions inform the greater pattern for the DM, which then is looped back to the players (civil war breaks out because the reign of the lich ended and the characters are in the middle of it, for instance). And so on ...

The question now is if the lich had to be there to begin with to have the impact in the game that it should have. Where do we measure the right amount of complexity? On the player side or on the DM side? Fact is that players (because: pattern recognizing monkeys, see above) will sooner or later recognize if it's all just made up on the spot, which will have them believe that their insights have no meaning at all. And that sucks. Experience furthermore tells me that it is way more satisfying to have something prepared to riff off of ...

That's the conundrum I was talking about in the beginning while adding another dimension to it: It's not only about how much you have to prepare, it's also about how you communicate that knowledge. Encoding, decoding, if you will. In that regard you can prepare too much or too little or it doesn't matter because you can't let the pattern emerge properly. However, at it's core it's about how the pattern emerges for the players and how much meaning the complex system carries.

Mosaic pictures are a good example for emergence, I guess.
Check the source for details on the pic [source
So ... it's not about how big your campaign binder is?

It can be, but the important thing is it doesn't have to be. I would say that a DM is on the same side as long as he is far enough ahead of the players that their decisions and guesses can impact it. That's what ultimately resonates with them. And don't forget how the rules of the game form another, more immediate pattern that helps carrying a game with yet another system. Or is it?

I made the argument in an earlier post (or was it a comment? not sure ...) that a campaign setting is nothing else but another set of rules (T├ękumel was the example I raised for a very strong setting that works like that, if I remember correctly). If true, it would most certainly challenge our perception of what a complete set of rules should or could do.

There's also some room to explore between the rules that have an immediate impact on the game and the rules implications a setting might bring. It's exactly in this room where we can find out how much complexity the game needs to emerge with plausible coherence.

In other words, let's see this from the player side for a moment. The first time they are made aware about the lich's power is by encountering some of the suffering his minions cause or some stories in that regard. It's like the outer rim of influence the creature has. At this point they might not be aware of the lich at all, not even that the encounter connects to it. The DM knows, though, but the only thing important at in this moment is to know that there is a connection to something bigger and how big that something is.

It's important here to see that all information the players can glean at this point goes beyond finding out that there is more to the encounter than thought at first. A simple set of possible decisions at this point would be to follow up on it or ignore it. Nothing is gained from the DM knowing that the lich is behind it.

In other words: there needs to be no lich at this point.

As long as the DM knows how deep this goes and keeps track of the emergence, it should all be good to go. A system supporting this should be aware of how those things emerge. I imagine it to be something like an onion where randomly, layer by layer, is determined how it fits to the pattern, making it more an more concrete with every relevant encounter.

And again, you don't need to know how an encounter is connected before it happens, just as it happens is totally enough. Like, if you roll up the encounter and the evil entity comes up, everything else will fall into place right then and there (because all you have to work with is what is already established in connection with what is about to be revealed).

See as the story unfolds ... [source]
Well, what's an encounter, then?

First of all, since this is about a game with a lot of talking, encounters are merely information or hints how to interact with a changing narrated world. It's where what is happening at the table changes direction. Going from there, encounters can be measured by the scale they have or how they resonate with the setting. It's all random at this point, but is it just something happening momentarily or maybe locally? Are there wider implications to consider?

Remember, it makes (or should make) no difference to the players, as the emergence is still ensured. The only thing that changes is how far the DM has to plan ahead. The way I see it, he has to trust the chaos to form patterns as he feeds it while interacting with the players.

Go one further: if it's all about a never ending feed of information, why, then, do we need monster stats? What are we keeping track of? The figment of the idea of a creature? In the end it's a matter of consequence. Of scale. You don't need the stats of monsters, you just need to know what happens if a creature is interacted with and that's just more information waiting to happen. Or maps, for that matter? Why have them if the players are going to draw their own as they explore a setting?

I know, I know, the numbers game is one of the tropes of our hobby. Every monster needs its stats and maps are pretty, right? It's also something deeply rooted in the war games history of the hobby where different units and accurate maps are necessary. Is the same true for role playing games? I'd at least like to challenge that assumption for my own game. 

But where do you go from there? Well, I go into part of that in Part 1. Basically you'll need depth, kind and scale of a character. Something like: "12 (scale) epic level (depth) Roman soldiers (kind)" and some other elements that elevate an encounter from circumstantial to immediate (attacks, damage capability, saves, stuff like that - Lost Songs will use runes here ... easy to draw and loaded with meaning). The thing is that encounters are entities within a certain, measurable sphere and not (necessarily) single entities.

It's a top-down thing in that you get one value for, say the influence the lich has on its surroundings (say 10.000 points) and every time the characters interact with this sphere, they leave marks on it. Reducing the point value results in xp, but it can not only be done by weapons, it could also be done by spreading rumors or whatever else the characters can come up with to reduce this sphere ...

But that's something I have to go into in Part 3, when the actual thing is written and ready for testing.

What's to take from this?

The reason for all this is that I'm really lazy with the bookkeeping in my games and if I can come up with a way to make all this happen with just a couple of numbers and signs, than I'll do just that. Funny thing about it is that I don't mind the work up front to get there.

Complexity always starts small and builds from there, either as you explore it or as it emerges from somewhere. And that's how you build everything in the game. That's really something to keep in mind when DMing: regardless of the amount of preparation you put into something, you can only transmit it one word of information after another and more often than not it's indistinguishable on the receiving end if it's something just invented or planned long ahead as long as its emergence is coherent and allows meaningful interaction.

Also remember: there's always a pattern to be found in chaos. Trust the chaos :)

More on the whole deal when I finish my first draft of the system I'm working on to actually use all this in Lost Songs.

This is originally about management skills, but dammit, it's all there ... [source]


2 comments:

  1. Informative read. I'm mostly in agreement with the whole fractal approach.

    I'll add this: one needs to temper all the chaos with a few ledges upon which a Ref can solidly prop his running's beams, elsewise the running's bottomline risks dropping off, becoming as an internet running feed with no endgame or conclusion.

    Also, it's only a game about problem solving if there's a problem on the horizon that the players can engage with. I agree that the particulars can emerge as chaos-made-manifest, but things must have an endpoint, preferably one that the players know in advance so that agency can be a thing.

    In effect, as regards your example, I'd start with definitely deciding for the Liche's existence and begin extrapolating the in-setting consequences from there.

    I've done this kind of winging before and it merits saying: it takes a robust ruleset and a consummate mastery of it (or a very rule-light system), but it can really pay off.

    The Alexandrian's "Don't Prep Plots" was where I first read about this. It remains as relevant today as it was then.

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    1. Thanks! I'm experimenting with this for a couple of years now and I can say it can be somewhat intimidating at first, but it definitely pays off. Here's what I mainly use nowadays (it'll be updated with some of the principles above soon, though):

      http://the-disoriented-ranger.blogspot.de/2016/09/the-random-narrative-generator.html

      Served me very well in the immediate game so far!

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