Sunday, 5 September 2021

On High Concept Campaigns and Plot Immunity

Is there a lagrange point between old school play, which emphasises emergent narrative, sandboxes, and letting the dice lie where they fall, and the mainstream of the RPG hobby, which is all about pre-plotted story, pre-determined outcomes, character development, and fudging?

Such is one of the great unexplored regions of the hobby; we know more about the surface of the moon or the depths of the ocean floor than we do about this strange realm, populated - it is believed - only by small, wandering tribes of uncontacted peoples, who we dare not approach lest they succumb to the diseases of urbanity or impale us on spears.

One of the weaknesses of old school play is that it is resistant to high-concept campaigns. I am thinking  here, for example, of ideas such as:

  • The PCs start off having been cursed, and have to find a way to escape their fate
  • The PCs start as people whose family members have been kidnapped or enslaved, and are trying to rescue them across a vast, dramatic and wild continent/interplanar region/whatever
  • The PCs are trying to find a cure for a terrible disease sweeping through their home city
  • The PCs are tasked with mapping an island which has just appeared in the middle of an ocean
  • &c.
This kind of idea can probably be realised given most 'old school' postulates (a sandbox strewn with clues and red herrings; a way of producing random events and complications; a strict commitment to the consequences of player action; a hexmap filled with interesting and diverting stuff; and so on) except when it comes to PC death. This is because if PCs are dying with some regularity there is a need to continually introduce new ones, and it begins to stretch credulity, and challenge the basic concept of the campaign, to incorporate these people into the overarching theme. Are all new PCs who appear also cursed in the same way as the original ones? Have all new PCs had a parent/sibling/spouse/cousin kidnapped by the dastardly interplanar bandits? Are all new PCs from a place where the same disease is spreading, and have they all been tasked with finding a cure? Where do new PCs appear from when the original crew were explorers who were specifically exploring a mysterious island? Yes, there are ways of answering these questions, but when forced to do so repeatedly and consistently, repetitiveness and silliness will result. 

One element of mainstream doctrine that OSR play might therefore adopt is plot immunity for PCs - relative or absolute. How would a campaign play out if all the elements of an old school campaign were present, but it was made clear from the outset - to DM and players alike - that the PCs could never die? When reduced to 0 hit points they suffer some malady or are knocked unconscious or suffer some great hindrance, but always remain alive? I am curious to know if anybody has ever tried this, and if they have, what the results were.

It seems to me that the game would lose dramatic tension, but that this might be offset against the fun of trying to complete the task at hand against adversity and exploring an interesting setting - and also being able to follow one's character, Pendragon-style, across time.

29 comments:

  1. This space isn't as unexplored as you might think. I recently wrote a post talking about how to construct just such a "sweet spot" scenario for OSR-minded GMs: https://knightattheopera.blogspot.com/2021/08/princess-mononoke-and-dm-prepared-plots.html

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  2. honestly really easy solutions present themselves to most of these. for a "cure the plague" campaign, just have the entire thing set within the plague-ridden area, so anybody will have a reason to want to chip in and help. with interplanar slavers, new PCs can just be adventurers sympathetic to the original party's plight. If it ends up being just one of the original party members freeing the slaves with a bunch of other randos in tow who all believe in the cause, isn't it that much sweeter? the island thing is pretty much just a megadungeon but hex-crawl-y, I guess, run it like that. have players return to "home base" at the end of each game session, where new recruits might join up.

    As for the curse one... yeah there's no good way around that one, tbh, but the curse should also INCLUDE immortality for good measure. like, "an eternity of pain" right that checks out

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    1. OK, fine - but those were just examples. I'm sure there are others. The general point is that there will be circumstances where frequent character death is at odds with a particular campaign idea.

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  3. This is where something like old-school energy drain might come into play for me. If the conceit of the setting/dungeon is for characters to never die (a la Highlander), they could instead suffer a loss of experience level (and perhaps a period of incapacitation) every time they're "killed" mechanically. In-game "death" remains something to be avoided, but the characters can persist.

    I prefer sandbox-style campaigns, but my long-time group of players lack a high degree of curiosity and want to be spoon-fed the next piece of content rather than explore the world for themselves. Getting them to direct their story is a challenge for me, so I always end up running a weird hybrid between open-world and strong setting/plot. It works, but I end up having to do more work than I should/want to.

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    1. Yes, so it ends up being more video-gamey - "start again at the beginning".

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  4. So I've done this a few times. It's not "old school" as most folks think of it; we're mostly borrowing Old School's flexibility and lack of complexity. It does feel a bit more like what I expect Pendragon is like; the game strongly focuses on personal connections, friendships and rivalries and relationships built over the campaign. But it takes at least six or so sessions before that really starts to get any traction. It can be even more heightened if the DM runs their campaign like Les Miserables, where the PCs keep running into the same folks over and over again. Works really, really well if you want a soap opera sort of feel. Combine with a system of scars and the PCs bodies and minds can become a map of the story so far.

    Does that answer the question you were asking?

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  5. What if once all the original PCs have died, the campaign ends? I.e. players whose PCs die may come up with replacement PCs, but it’s assumed that these PCs will have lesser plot importance than the original group, and will in some sense be satellites around them. Perhaps fhe ‘next generation’ will find some organic motivation or reason to continue on the same quest after all fhe ‘1st generation’ PCs are dead… or perhaps not. Perhaps it’ll be dramatically satisfying enough in its own way for the story to end when the last of the original party dies, and whatever happens to the secondary PCs can be described in summary or left the subject of speculation.

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    1. I quite like that idea. Although I'd anticipate that when there is only one character left everybody would be trying their damnedest to ensure he/she survives and is wrapped in cotton wool. That could be fun in its own way, though.

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  6. One of the wonderful things built into the older editions is the lust for treasure (x.p. for gold) thing, because it unites all the PCs behind one over-arching objective. Several of these high concepts you postulate would have the same effect: if a magic curse/plague is ravaging the land, only the PCs (newly rolled or not) have the gumption to do anything about it. If a mysterious island has appeared off the coast (and is sending waves of kaiju at the mainland), only the PCs are brave enough to explore it. Replacements for killed PCs are just new “brave souls” willing to take up the quest.

    The only time high concept doesn’t work with “standard” play (or forces plot immunity issues) is when specific PCs are created with “backgrounds” and “destinies” that are INTEGRAL to the concept. At that point, you know longer have JUST a “high concept” campaign, you have the beginnings of a shaky (or solid) railroad story. THESE characters will fulfill the prophecy, THESE characters are the children of the lost king, THESE characters were the ones whose family was taken by evil fey, etc.

    Do the PCs NEED to be the crux of dramatic tension to run a high concept game? I don’t think so (and if your players DO need this, um, what does that say about them?). See GusL’s posts on running Dragonlance as a straight “war campaign” (with PCs as refugees and guerrilla fighters rather than “Heroes of Fate”). D&D campaigns don’t HAVE to be a string of picaresque adventures by Hobos Without A Cause.

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    1. You're right, but I want to test this proposition that once you have characters who are 'fated' to do something it necessarily becomes a railroad. Certainly it means the end of the campaign is partially pre-ordained (although nobody knows how it will play out). But I'm not sure that deprives the players of agency if there are near-infinite ways of getting there.

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  7. "Is there a lagrange point between old school play, which emphasizes emergent narrative, sandboxes, and letting the dice lie where they fall, and the mainstream of the RPG hobby, which is all about pre-plotted story, pre-determined outcomes, character development, and fudging?"

    This statement is so...baffling...I am drawn - NAY! FORCED! to address it in a post of my own.

    Actually I must thank you. Something like this gets me out of my current doldrums and back to writing.

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  8. I've been bouncing around this space with my Hyperborea campaign over the last year and a half. I've ended up with a lot of real high fantasy beats that have been pretty fun though a little against traditional OSR dungeon crawling. These have gotten setup organically - via dungeon and hex crawling encounters and hooks taken. I did do a long arc with the characters cursed (this was the result of an encounter with a powerful creature and wasn't a long term plan before it happened). At least one character joined the group during this time and helped the others find the solution to the curse but was never cursed themselves. There was a lot of buy in during this phase of the campaign and it lent itself to a big payoff at the end so it felt pretty successful. Currently I'm slowly trying to ease them into a version of the Court of Ardor module (Tolkien serial numbers filed off) which has been a little trickier than I thought with trying to get them invested in a pretty cosmic adventure without hammering them with exposition or quest-bots telling them where to go next.

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    1. Yes, in my experience you often get these things happening organically, and in those circumstances it can be very tempting to slip into 'Silver Age' new school kind of play. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing.

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  9. "Do the PCs NEED to be the crux of dramatic tension to run a high concept game? I don’t think so (and if your players DO need this, um, what does that say about them?)."

    To me at least, it says something better than the 'wonderful thing' of killing things to steal their treasure. I'd much rather being among a group of heroes with lofty asperations, tragic backstories, and a difficult road ahead then a group of murderous thieves who are looking forward to their next bloody theft.

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    1. My point, BA, is that you can run a high concept, non-murder-hobo campaign AND yet *not* make the PCs plot-immune special snowflake characters.

      Jeez.

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  10. "Wolves of God" plays with this - the PC have a Wyrd - specific fates that they will come across.
    While those fates are unfulfilled, the PCs cannot die - they suffer scars when brought to 0 hp and will recover. The Wyrds (3-4) can be used to "auto-succeed" in specific contexts, but when they are all used, the PCs loose their plot immunity.

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  11. One idea that sticks out to me is the Dark Souls approach. When a player character dies in Dark Souls, they lose all the souls they were carrying (an elegant blend of currency and experience points) and are resurrected at the last bonfire (checkpoint) they rested at. Enemies also return to life.

    This seems like it would be very easy to bring into a tabletop campaign. Not sure I would resurrect enemies too, since that seems a bit too video-gamey. But the loss of XP would certainly be painful enough to encourage players to continue playing cautiously.

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    1. Yep - that's a bit like the energy drain concept. Definitely something to play with.

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  12. Isn't this what resurrection magic is for?
    If you don't like cheapening death, then just have more forgiving death rules and enemies that capture, restrain, or loot rather than kill. Maybe a 'are you REALLY sure you want to do that?' thrown in when the players are about to kill themselves in a way you can't avoid.

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    1. Yes, something about resurrection magic has always felt wrong to me.

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  13. It is not unexplored. It is called Dragonlance and was the end of the Republic! Say no to your feelings. Say NO!

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  14. A couple things are that #1 I keep the setting the same over various adventuring parties (really tricky since we rotate refs, but not so bad because the multiverse is part of the story), and #2 things that happen from whichever party become canon. This helps refs introduce overarching themes which maybe hinted at and then later played around with.

    For instance, a long ago campaign had a magical decanter that, when a character drank from the decanter they appeared in this kind of pocket plane room where they could rest and heal. Our later party (actually thousands of years later) has come across the magical decanter, except now the planar room has a gaping hole in it leading to a plane of near-blindness and undeath. When my turn to ref rolls around again I will step up that gaping hole a bit to something that has more impact on the story line, and will get improvised on by later refs.

    (Ha, except the party may have just time traveled so I'll have to figure out how unleashing denizens from the undead plane fits in. Our general rules for time travel have followed "The Door into Summer" by Robert Heinlein where all the time travels pieces must fit together.)

    Events in a campaign becomes more of riffs upon which a ref can create spontaneously, the game as much a process of discovery for the ref as for the other players. (Har, “Jazz D&D”)

    The other thing is that even when our group used older editions PC death was more rare because we used the rule death at -CON rather than 0. That gave PCs a respite where they were removed from a fight, but not yet dead.

    Presently we use a Death and Dismember Table derived and adapted to Labyrinth Lord from Death and Dismemberment in The Zak Hak by Zak Sabboth. I included the new derived table (with permission) in a little free booklet with our other LL variations on DriveThru. I enjoy using a death & dismember table (there are many variations if you search the web) because the tables use 0 hit points to blur the line between a PC being fully functional or dead to add serious incapacitating wounds, scars, and a PC dying e.g. adventurers might have anywhere from 1-4 rounds to bind wounds or heal another character who reached 0 hit points.

    In practice a death and dismember table seems to have reduced the incident of character death while also adding other dramatic elements to combat and introducing physical scars that adventurers wear as a reminder of their close-to-death experiences.

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    1. Yes, I'm strict about death at -1hp. This results in lots of death, but I think what's good for monsters should be good for the PCs and vice-versa.

      Love that decanter idea!

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  15. After writing my own post addressing your initial paragraph, I re-read this entry over a few times and must say that I am a tad confused.

    How exactly you are applying the term 'High Concept' and some of the elements you feel are attributed to either 'Old School' or 'Mainstream' (by which I just have to assume you mean New School/Modern and not actually Mainstream which is still just D&D even if its 5th Edition and Pathfinder).

    More to the point, what makes any of the ideas you mention 'High Concept' ideas. They seem pretty basic to me. Almost mundane.

    These in particular:

    'The PCs start off having been cursed, and have to find a way to escape their fate.'

    'The PCs are trying to find a cure for a terrible disease sweeping through their home city.'

    and especially

    'The PCs are tasked with mapping an island which has just appeared in the middle of an ocean.'

    These seem like standard D&D games I've seen or heard about dozens of times over the year. I think I was in that first one and I've run the last one as part of a much larger campaign.

    What about these makes you think of them as High Concept and why can't they be done using your specific description of Old School gaming?

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  16. I try to avoid ever designing a situation where a fight is mandatory. The PCs can always choose to evade/flee, negotiate or just pick a different direction. You don't even have to fight a dragon if you A) don't want it's treasure; B) don't care if it eats the village and C) make sure that you hide from it when it's flying around. Last dragon I 'faced' as a PC we stole some loot while it was off hunting and left some incriminating clues suggesting that the deed was done by people we don't like.

    The point is, fighting should be a result of player choice, and it doesn't always have to be to the death. But if the PCs decide to fight a man-eating monster, lose, and can't outrun it well then at least one of them is probably getting eaten. So the prophecy about how that person was really the Nine-Tailed Fox who was going to find the Vorpal Katana and become King of England... I guess the prophecy was wrong.

    I guess you could say "Well, your backstory says you're prophesied to be the Bestest Evar so you don't die... but the Hydragorgocore eats your left boot; you are -1 to movement for the next session" but doesn't it just seem like there's a probably a more fulfilling hobby out there? It's like playing Poker and not using real money... it's a stakes-based game that doesn't use real stakes. The same 4 people could be playing Andean Abyss or Friedrich or something like that.

    You can always do an epic quest without the prophecy angle, or one that doesn't take respect of persons. For example: "If the Magical Face Eating Plague is to be cured, it will be cured by 6 outsiders to the realm!" There's your quest, and the prophecy establishes the basic parameters, but it doesn't make an guarantees.

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  17. I used an approach like this recently when I ran my first game of Lasers & Feelings. Admittedly there were many differences - it was a one-off session 2 hours long, not a campaign, L&F doesn't have any mechanics for death anyway, and it was a lot more story-based than mechanics based - but I found it really enjoyable allowing the players the sort of freedom of a sandbox, while still aiming for a certain ending. As I result I had to think on my feet a lot, constantly reconfiguring the universe so that the players could still save it.

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