Wombat's Path IV: Focus On Story

I had burned out on GMing, but it was in my blood and wouldn't let go of my brain. I took some time off to throw myself into theater, but I couldn't stay away for long.

I ran a very casual game for the home crowd which I dusted off for the college crowd: Wumpus Quest. Everyone made evil characters and tried to track the 50-foot-tall hairy philanthropist known as the Wumpus. The evil bard had a hard time coming up with rhymes for "pestilence". Zany cross-dimensional things happened. One time the characters used a portal, then woke up from cybernetic implant surgery an instant later. Boy, did the elven assassin love her retractable claws.

Wumpus Quest had very vague, handwavy rules. Character creation used AD&D with a rough point buy system for racial attributes. The beholder mage had all his eyestalk powers, but every stat except Int got bought down to 4. That lack of rules liberated me to shorten the time between idea and implementation: if I could imagine something I could use it immediately. I let the game take me where it wanted to go, and my players laughed. Win.

I wanted a deeper, more story-driven game. I had a few players interested and committed to a fantasy game from the Gamut, so I plotted for a bit and dusted off Highcastle as a setting. I went out and bought a single dark green d20 and told myself this was the only die I would use for the entire game, damage rolls be damned. I spent a couple of hours with each player one-on-one for character creation and pre-game mini-adventures.

The party came together slowly. An aristrocratic family-oriented son of a fighter guildmaster, resplendent in his full plate. A schooled mage summoner with the school's pentagram etched in his forehead. A bald priest of Kreigan walking the middle path between pure martial ability and mystic ability. A well-connected bard looking for source material for his masterpiece. All drawn in by fate and Puck's busy hands.

These characters had depth. The world came alive. People around them died and the characters mourned. Lizardmen and dragons invaded the city and were eventually repulsed back to the sea. A mysterious order of knights took to rebuilding a town on the coast, under orders from a beholder. The aristocrat earned titles and an artifact, much to the chagrin of the political and religious establishment. Intrigue abounded.

I handwaved combat by listening to what the players wanted to do, then assigning a success range (sometimes odd ones like "even numbers 10 or higher") and rolling a single die to determine how well they succeeded. I thought about what the characters could do and went from there. Story led the way and burned away all the rules that slowed story down.

It was the fourth game I had run in the Highcastle setting, and I think it was the best game I had run. What made it great? I started with a more measured, linear approach to the plot. I had a page of possible plots prepped, planing to dole them out as time went on. The pacing felt a little slow and I felt like I was losing focus. And one night, I decided to do a  little experiment.

I remember thinking, "Why not introduce every plot I have and let them choose what to focus on?" So in the course of one 4 hour session, I threw the threads of 20 plotlines at the characters. Everybody had a handful of potential adventures (most of them time-sensitive) drop in their laps, one or two from everyone they knew. Some tried to take care of things on their own, but quickly realized they needed the rest of the party to help. And when they got back together, the discussion about what to do next got so intense that I knew I had a winner.

The game wound down with a climax that felt a little anticlimactic, and we all worked out what happened to the characters post-game in a little epilogue. It completed itself, and I really enjoyed the intensity of the game. It felt great to focus on one game and explore the characters and setting very deeply.

Yes, I'm going to go back to writing about dealing with time crunch for PCs. It's an approach that has worked for me since that Highcastle game, and I need to solidify some of the ideas around it. Some of it is just common sense, but as someone wiser than me has said, "It seems that common sense ain't so common." I'll assume nothing about your ability and go from there.

More in the next installment. Heck, I can't seem to write myself out of college yet.

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