Scope, Scale, & Stakes, Longer Thoughts

While Mattias was telling me about a game he’s preparing for, and the layers of growth and reveal that he has planned, he reminded me of terminology I’d first learned in Kenneth Hite’s 3rd ed. GURPS Horror sourcebook (this links to the 4th ed.). Page 71 of the 3rd edition book introduces “scope” and “scale,” two narrative concepts widely applicable to stories beyond horror-gaming. They’re not necessary for good narrative construction or fun gaming, but they’re extremely useful for both analysis and planning. They’re also likely to show up regardless of whether you intend them to or not, and manipulating them is a straightforward way to change tension in a story.

It’s worth noting that scope and scale are related to but separate from stakes. I’ll cover changing scope, scale, and stakes to affect tension later.

First, I’m going to roughly quote Hite’s definitions of scale and scope, and then follow up with a definition of stakes.

In Hite’s usage, scale is “the level at which protagonists are interacting with the world, and the results of their actions upon it.” Characters operating on a prosaic scale are struggling for their lives and hoping to simply get by, while characters operating on an epic scale are larger than life and deciding the fate of countries or worlds. Scale is a measure of the grandiosity of a character’s actions, and it’s possible to operate on multiple scales simultaneously, or to change scale rapidly without detracting from a story. As an example of multiple simultaneous scales, a hero might struggle to survive the onslaught of a demon (prosaic), knowing that if she can withstand it and defeat it she will change the fate of her world (epic).

Meanwhile, Hite defines scope as “what the PCs can see,” meaning the boundaries of their awareness or the perceived importance of their actions. If a story’s characters only know about the spread of a dangerous cult in a small town, or a single person on the run from one person who wants them dead, that’s a fairly narrow scope. The scope is broader if the story’s characters know that this dangerous cult is the latest outgrowth of a wider group bent on finding a potent mystical artifact in the town, or if that person on the run holds a larger power which might ultimately defeat the nation which sent their hunter to murder them. Furthermore, it’s useful to distinguish between a story’s visible scope (what we’d usually just call scope, and what characters are aware of at any given time, like “there’s a cult in this town”) and the story’s actual scope (what the characters might discover, like “this cult is just the tip of the iceberg”).

Stakes, meanwhile, are whatever is in jeopardy, at risk, or to be gained by a course of action. A story’s stakes inform the scale and scope, though it’s possible for them to operate independently. For example, the life of that person on the run is relatively small stakes, and a story about keeping them alive might have a prosaic scale. But as the characters’ visible scope expands (through gaining more information about the world) and the characters recognize their position in a larger story, the stakes increase and the scale at which the characters are operating may take on multiple levels. In that above example, the characters’ struggle to save the person’s life is prosaic, but may ultimately have epic consequences.

Not every story needs scale, scope, or stakes to change. Sometimes we just want something picaresque, episodic, or repetitive. But I think those repetitive stories are less popular than ones in which scale, scope, and stakes change and grow.

And even within those more repetitive stories, there are often changes to the characters’ visible scope: the characters recognize that “X is bigger than we’d thought,” and thus the stakes (and tension) rise. This change in visible scope can happen for characters and audience simultaneously or separately, but it most often happens for characters shortly before the story’s climax. In the denouement following the climax, the visible scope often recedes once again, as various plot threads are tied up and completed. Characters may still know that something greater is going on, or that events are operating at a larger scale, but their access to that broader scope usually diminishes with their part in that larger story.

So, expanding stakes and visible scope are straightforward ways to heighten tension. Focusing on the prosaic scale is also useful for heightening tension, even as it often expands alongside scope and stakes. Remember: expansion of scale is okay, because characters can operate on multiple scales at once… and can feel more relatable by struggling in prosaic conflicts despite possessing epic powers.

Because variation in tension is considered de rigueur in most adventure and dramatic genres, those stories generally thrive on changes in scope and scale. This is especially true of long-running stories that involve character empowerment, or which cover new ground; without that variation in tension, and believable changes in characters’ scale and visible scope, audiences lose interest. Similarly, arbitrarily or too-frequently returning to prosaic scale and stakes will eventually rob that technique of its tension. The eighteenth time Batman fights a dangerous baddie isn’t as tense as the first time.

What does that mean for us as writers or storytellers?

We can plan for expansions of scale, scope, and stakes. And when I say plan, I really mean “have a very general idea of what might change.” If you’re making stories collaboratively, e.g. playing RPGs, it’s best to leave little hints and clues for you to pull on later and tie into something bigger for the players to discover. It’s not necessary to know how those things will work, or what they’ll connect to when you put them there! You could do all that work, but then you run the risk of never having players discover anything you made because they wanted to go elsewhere or follow other clues.

If you leave little hints and tidbits lying around, and have general ideas of what the larger scope, scale, and stakes might look like, it’s easier to put everything together when the time comes and players finally follow those leads. A villain’s ties to a larger organization or their correspondence with an unnamed person are useful here. Likewise, when the PCs learn the specific modus operandi for a particular group and recognize that elsewhere in a new situation, they’ll often connect the dots and identify the relation between the two. It’s all about building up the skills and world-knowledge of your players (or audience), and letting them draw the connection and feel that frisson of understanding (and maybe dread).

This has gone longer than I’d anticipated. I suspect there’s more material here. I may revisit the topic.

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Character Connections & Motivations, Longer Thoughts

I recently ran an impromptu game of D&D 5e for some friends. While I was asking the players for their character’s connections to the other players and the world around them, one person said (I paraphrase) “I don’t have any connections. I live alone in the woods and don’t know or care about these people.”

I was a bit short with the player in response, and pushed them to come up with some connections, even if they didn’t feel like close ones. The player did.

Reflecting on that moment…  Continue reading

Hiding your Rolls, Quick Thoughts

This will be another quick one, I’m still with family. These thoughts are brought to you by an excellent post on hexcrawls I read a while ago… one I’ve unfortunately forgotten and thus cannot cite here.

In RPG systems where the storyteller must roll dice, there’s a long tradition of storytellers hiding the results of their rolls. There are plenty of reasons for this (fostering tension, keeping secrets, the fact that sometimes characters don’t know whether they’ve succeeded, etc.), and some of them are useful. But it’s worth noting that not every roll needs to be hidden. This especially applies to combat in D&D.

I’d argue that—whenever possible—not hiding your rolls is the better course. There’s more to this: when you don’t hide rolls, it’s okay to not hide foes’ stats. You needn’t reveal them immediately, but as PCs spend a while fighting an NPC they will slowly get a feel for the NPC’s capabilities, and that is perfectly natural. This also speeds up play, as you needn’t try to reference material while keeping it secret from players.

With this approach, there are still times when hiding your rolls is better for the feel of the story. For example, hiding your rolls works well when the PCs are surprised or don’t know what they face. This experience of information asymmetry matches the experience of the PCs. In fact, when players are used to getting information about their foes, the sudden lack of information might completely change their assessment of a situation (likely for the worse).

Note that when you’re not hiding your rolls, you aren’t able to fudge them for or against the PCs. Some players love this, some hate it… and it’s definitely more dangerous to the PCs, as dice are random and capricious. Simply put, when not hiding rolls it’s harder for you to protect your PCs from your own mistakes in creating challenges without foreshadowing them sufficiently.

When you’re not hiding rolls, I would suggest playing more openly in all ways; talk with players about what the PCs are able to see, what they might guess based on their previous experience, and what capabilities they know their opponents have (thus far). Be generous with that information! Nobody likes to be “gotcha’d,” and there’s no need for you to trick players in that way. Save that cleverness for creating exciting and tricky encounters, puzzles, or what-have-you.

Of course, all these suggestions cultivate a particular flavor of game. You needn’t use them if you don’t like them. But I’ve had good experience with them, and I think my players felt more rewarded by their victories when they knew that I hadn’t coddled them by fudging die rolls in their favor. I hope you find them useful.

Taking PCs’ Stuff: better D&D via Apocalypse World

This post is primarily about D&D’s 5th edition (5e), though it is more broadly applicable. If you don’t know anything about roleplaying games, you might want to read this article first.

This post looks to Apocalypse World (AW) for inspiration on when to take away, use up, or activate the downsides of PCs’ stuff in 5e. Some of these ideas are already present (or suggested) in 5e, but I’ve frequently forgotten to use them. My hope is that this thought-jumble will remind me to use them in the future, and that my ponderings can be useful to other people as well.

Some games are better served by *not* using these ideas. They create a specific tone, more consistent with gritty explorers and dungeon delvers rather than high-powered fantasy adventure or flashy social intrigue.

Lastly, I think it’s important to implement these ideas from the outset, or to introduce them gradually and explicitly. Using these ideas changes the way the PCs’ world works, and might not meet the players’ assumptions. It’s rude to pull the rug out from under the players by making changes suddenly and without warning. I’d want my players’ buy-in before incorporating these ideas into my game, whether that means setting the game’s tone at the start or getting the players’ agreement to them mid-campaign.

With that out of the way… when should we take away the player characters’ (PCs’) stuff?

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Prince of Outcasts, by S.M. Stirling

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I want to finish this book. I do. But I’m struggling with it, in a rather painful fashion, for the best possible reasons.

I’ve struggled with Stirling before, and found my way through. Yet even taking into consideration the thoughts I had about milieu and Stirling’s fiction, and how that helped me with previous entries in this ever-expanding series, I’m still having trouble. And it’s all because my friend Caroline ran one of the best Call of Cthulhu campaigns I’ve ever had the pleasure to to play, and Stirling is trying to make use of the same material.

I played Caroline’s game, her modified version of Tatters of the King, more than seven years ago. I still think fondly of the characters in that game (yes, mine, but also those of my friends), but more to the point I think of Caroline’s campaign as a benchmark for slow-growth horror games. Her storytelling, the way in which she introduced us so gradually to the madness that is The King in Yellow, and the way in which she carefully cultivated our own personal experiences of horror until we felt enmeshed in our characters’ insanity, has stood for me as a constant reminder of what good horror storytelling feels like.

Some of this must be the glow of nostalgia. But I know I loved it at the time, too. Otherwise I wouldn’t have kept so many pages of notes in my tiny, cramped handwriting. I wouldn’t have so obsessively catalogued events such that Caroline agreed that my investigator had created his own occult tome.

And for me that intensity, that devouring mystery and too-late dismay, is what it means to traffic with The King in Yellow.

Stirling can’t touch that. For someone else, someone who has not experienced this particular branch of horror mythos in the same way, Prince of Outcasts may be just fine. But for me, Caroline got there first.

Sorry Stirling. I read your book and instead think of that campaign.

I don’t think I’m going to finish this book. Not any time soon at least.

Exemplars & Eidolons: Post-Mortem

It turns out that Exemplars & Eidolons was almost exactly as awesome as I thought it would be. It also turns out that I failed to sufficiently anticipate the bottleneck that I would create by not printing out more materials for my players to use while making their characters. So much for “less than half an hour.”

To be fair, most of character creation was finished faster than that. The dice-rolling and number generating side of things, and the decisions that people had to make about equipment and such, were really quick. Choosing their gifts, with the limited information that I gave them, was really quick too.

What took time was copying information about their gifts onto their character sheets, and coming up with facts about their characters. The first of those has a pretty obvious solution; I can give out more pre-printed materials after people have chosen their gifts, instead of being the only person with access to the full text of the gift entries in the book. The second seems a little trickier.

The game suggests that players write three facts about their characters. As the text puts it in the one page cheat sheet, “One fact should be about their past life and how they obtained their skills. Another should be about the family or social ties they have, and the third should be about some special trait or personal quality.” It took a little convincing from me for them to say ridiculous and awesome things about themselves. I also had to tell them that these were intended to give them more hooks or ways to interface with the world, instead of being intended to shut them away from it.

Maybe it’s because first level characters in Exemplars & Eidolons don’t look like all that much on paper, but I don’t think they really believed how badass I was encouraging them to be. The truth is, if I were only looking at the numbers on the sheet without having read the rule book, I might think that most E&E characters were doomed to suffer ignominious deaths at the hand of a few goblins with pointy sticks. In point of fact, I think just about any E&E character would totally wreck those goblins, probably on their own… but it’s tough to embrace that when you look at your character and don’t *believe* it.

So how am I going to make that side of things go faster? To some extent there’s no way for me to rush the creativity of my players. If they can’t come up with anything they like, they can’t come up with anything they like. I’ve certainly had that problem today, getting 720 and 530 words into two different tries for a flash fiction piece and liking neither of them. But I think I should write three examples of different kinds of facts for each of the prompts and include them in the additional materials that I print up. I can also include my little reminders about how people should make their facts more badass than not, and how they should create further engagement with the world if at all possible. Maybe I’m deviating from the original intent, but I don’t want players to hobble themselves because they decided to make their fact about “some special trait” be ‘dies their hair green’ when other people are throwing around things like ‘walked barefoot through the Valley of Knives both ways, in the middle of winter.’

And, if all else fails, they can write their facts while we play. Heck, that might be the best possible option. If I prep some adventures right now so that I can start game the moment people have the relevant numbers, and start with the characters already undertaking some task, I’m pretty sure a bunch of improv trained LARP campers can come up with some personal character details.

Oh, yeah, the session was awesome. I’ll probably talk more about it later, but suffice to say that improvising and flying by the seat of your pants is really easy in this system. It’s great, and fighting spooky snake sorcerers in a dark and creepy space is scary.

Exemplars & Eidolons: Quick + Dirty OSR

There’s a tradition at the overnight LARP camp where I work, one that has been carefully nurtured by my friend Zach, of playing RPGs when you’re not busy LARPing. Zach has run a wide variety of games at camp, but in the past few years he’s used Old School Renaissance games almost exclusively. I think I’ve finally discovered why.

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Depth-Based Adventure Sites

This gallery contains 4 photos.

Originally posted on Monster Darlings:
Many of us know the joy of describing a complex dungeon and watching our friends studiously attempt to chart it out on graph paper, in many cases distorted by the “picture-telephone effect.”  And mapping out a dungeon can be serious fun for a DM.  But sometimes, adventurers want to explore…

Awesome RPG Material Generators

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 3.18.58 PM The above image may not look like much, but it is actually amazing.  It’s the product of a brilliant set of GMing tools, too good to pass up.  This site (http://donjon.bin.sh/) offers you a random dungeon generator, with settings for party size, level, hall layout, shape, room size, and more.  It gives you easily legible maps with mouseover text notes, and downloadable “secret-free” versions for your players.  Other sections of the same site offer more random generators than I can shake a stick at, ranging from inns and magic shops to weather, treasure hoards, and encounters.  It’s not perfect since it’s all pretty, uh, random, and you’ll want to edit features to fit your settings and stories… but it’s amazing when it comes to giving you rapid access to otherwise fiddly information for barely any effort. I do still want the ability to edit generated maps without having to convert them into some other system or format.  But I’ve had so much fun playing around with this for the past few days, and it’s given me piles of ideas.  Suddenly, almost all the prep work that I usually don’t like doing for D&D can be offloaded onto this, and that inspires me.  If you run games and tell stories of any sort, check this out.  It’s too cool to miss, even if you never end up using it yourself.

World Building: Making The Outer Planes Better

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Once again, I find myself investigating the cosmological background of the setting I’ve most recently created.  I was reading through the Dungeon Master’s Guide again, reading the section on planes near the beginning, and I’m in that usual place: somewhere between excited and miffed.  Fortunately, it’s easy enough to change the things that haven’t excited me.

I’m comfortable, for the most part, with the material the DMG offers on things like the Astral and Ethereal planes.  I’m more okay with the DMG’s ideas for the Shadowfell, the Feywild, and the various elemental planes.  I’m not very happy about their ideas for the Outer Planes.  I have some rewriting to do; let me tell you why.

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