Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Running Background Events in RPGs

One of the most interesting and most difficult things I do in the original settings and campaigns I've run for DCC and Dark Heresy is to create worlds that remain in motion around the characters. That is, many assumptions in RPGs don't really go much beyond what the characters do, to whom they do it, and what happens to them as a result of those specific events. While there are potential ramifications to their actions and the outcomes of those actions, they tend to be very much of a piece.

For example, a group of PCs may have to make a decision about whether an NPC lives or dies. Do they behave mercifully or vengefully? Do they help the NPC advance her cause, or do they thwart it. Clearly, with the hero/villain relationship, this is fairly easy. We try to impede the opposition however we can, and still stay in character (or alignment). So, if Villus the Paladin slaughters a bunch of people, they'd best be Evil. If not, then he can expect to revert to being a fighter for violation of alignment (or some similar outcome). You'll notice, here, that Villus is both connected to, and largely in control of, the thing that happens as an outcome. His actions "cause" it.

But what about things like social relationships between NPCs, or the unfolding of processes that affect the game world, or other things that are largely independent of the PCs' actions? Now the PCs might have some effect on those things, certainly, but they are not the only factor at play.

In Dark Heresy, I used something like this for my Order of The Infinite Way campaign arc. I used a "Plan" for each faction in that game, and provided options for what they might do. These include things like overall strategies the particular faction is pursuing, or tactics they might use to either advance that strategy or to respond to some specific action on the part of the PCs:

House Politics
Depending on how the PCs approach things, they may stir up some of the noble houses, causing them to attempt things they see to be in their best interests.
House Cortenses: Will definitely try to assassinate Paxxu Melus and his closest family, including Paxxu Gloriana.
House de Jagger: Will attempt to stay out of it, and let the local authorities take care of things. Will support their allies, particularly Sapphon and House Dekkarta.
House Dekkarta: Will do their best to keep stable the relations between the houses, but will also be willing to aid PCs if civil war seems imminent.
House Gallo: May use chaos to launch an attack on House Narutha.
House Lemulio: May use the opportunity to betray Sapphon, in hopes of taking over his enterprises.
House Mythrux: Wants desperately to hide its connection to the sorcerous arts. Will aid Willian Bellhouse, if Narutha attacks him.
House Narutha: May use the opportunity to take out Willian Bellhouse, in hopes of taking over his enterprises.
House Paxxu: May use opportunity to attack House Cortenses and take out their young ruler. May also use opportunity to take out Sapphon and assume control of his enterprises.
Criminal ActivityIt may be that the PCs do things to hurt the business of the various criminal gangs.
Willian Bellhouse will be far more likely a target, because of his affiliation with the Cold Trade and House Mythrux. He will attempt to do damage control if it seems like they are getting on his case, even to the point of removing his allies from the picture.
Sapphon will try to keep a lid on things, and will preserve and protect his enterprises. Surprisingly (or not), he will attack anyone who causes damage to the working classes. He will also attempt to help his allies, if help is needed.
 Again, the PCs can affect the action, but the NPCs have their own shit to deal with, and it goes beyond whatever the PCs are trying to do.

For that sort of situation, the PCs act as a trigger for some things. The NPCs may also simply take some initiative if they see an opportunity to do so. Again, the PCs have some role, but the NPCs are independent agents out to serve their own interests. They also, of course, are blinded by their own prejudices, acting on knowledge that only they have, and so forth. This helps the world seem more real to me, and also sets up a situation where those actions (both of the PCs and NPCs) have long-lasting effects. For Dark Heresy, unfortunately, these don't persist in the same way as for DCC. For one thing, the PCs usually move from planet to planet, leaving behind a swath of complications. I don't get to play with those toys again, unless they decide to revisit that place.

In games or campaigns with a more durable locale, this is very different. If the PCs commit a crime, or acquire a noble patron, or otherwise "connect" with the setting, the long-range consequences (for good or for ill) become fodder for additional adventures. Of the blogs I read, I think that +Zak Smith's Vornheim setting seems to get used in his home games in the sense that I'm talking about here. His players do some crazy shit, and they continue to deal with it as the campaign goes on. PCs live, die, leave, come back, etc., but the world just keeps spinning the way it does. The vast undead army doesn't just go back to sleep because a new set of PCs is in play. The world does not "reset." That's cool. I like that a lot.

 The stuff that +Adam Muszkiewicz and I are doing with the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign is a lot like that, in how it's unfolding. In fact, my players are in the midst of some things that will have some long-term effects, depending on how the game plays out. I don't want to spoil that, so I'll talk more about it in a later post.

One thing I am doing, though, that's interesting (to me) is the playing out of a particular set of interlinked processes. They're happening in the background of the adventure, and they're pretty much independent of the PCs' actions. They are, however, dependent on the actions of the NPCs. They include (without going into too much detail) an attempt to make something happen. I'm running this as a straight d20 check against a DC number. The DC number may be affected by PC actions, by the simple passage of time, or by success on the part of the NPC. Over the course of the game, though, it tends to get easier. For this, I'm having the players make a roll for me. I don't say what it's for. I just ask them to roll. If they do this thing, then Something Important has occurred to a greater or lesser extent. Sometimes multiple successes are required for a particular large Something Important to happen, or maybe those successes amplify the Something Important in particular programmed ways.

The other thing I'm doing is making a check at regular intervals to make a Process play out. The process is an ongoing thing. It will happen unless the PCs are able to intervene. However, until they are in a position to make that happen, it proceeds automatically. For this, I've been using "exploding" dice. If you've not used this before, this simply means that I pick a die type (e.g., d4, d5, d10, whatever). If the rolled result is the maximum, then the die "explodes." You roll it again, and add the result. If that result explodes again, then you roll again and add the result. You repeat this until you finally roll a non-maximum result. So if I rolled a d5, and got a 5, I'd roll again. If I got another 5 I'd roll again. If I got less than 5, then the rolling would end, and I'd total the results. Dark Heresy uses this for damage rolls (Emperor's Fury). It's a fun mechanic, and my players have had some great successes with it, especially +Jason Miller, damn his eyes.

Notice, though, that the d# determines the likelihood of dice explosion. With a d4, you have a 25% chance and with a d10 you have a 10% chance. However, when the larger dice explode, the absolute magnitude of the effect is potentially much greater. It is, though, much less likely to explode in the first place, let alone multiple times in a row.

I'm using this mechanic to model a background process, and to determine the magnitude of its success. I can also use the explosion mechanic to tell me if other, subsidiary effects are accomplished. So, for example, let's say some NPCs are attempting to undermine a curtain wall though the use of sappers. I might say that they have to accumulate a certain total of "labor" for it to happen (The PCs can impede that, of course, but I won't deal with that here.). So, I pick a d6 to represent that process. Since it's an exploding die, it's represented as d6! If I roll a 2, then I simply subtract 2 from the amount of labor the sappers have left to accomplish. If I roll a d6 and the die explodes, then I keep rolling until I achieve a result lower than 6. I total the results and subtract that number from the labor total.

However, a die explosion can be a trigger for some other things. Perhaps it could advance the process up the die chain, making the die a d7 or d8 instead of a d6. Maybe, in-game, this means that they got more conscripted labor to aid the process. Maybe it makes something else happen, even something unrelated tot he process itself (e.g., a new, more powerful NPC enters the lists). Whatever you decide the explosion means, it helps to make the outcome of your process a bit more interesting by adding the possibility of nonlinear results, the introduction of more narrative elements, or whatever else. To be frank, I like it because it creates more chaos in the results. It make surprises happen for me and for the players.

I'll let you know in more detail how this plays out, after this campaign arc ends. Stay tuned.

Addendum: In many ways I'm an RPG sophomore in the original sense of the word: A wise fool. I know a lot about some very specific games (Dark Heresy, Warhammer Fantasy RPG 2nd ed., D&D to some extent), but sometimes attempt to speak outside of that expertise as if I'm an authority. It's the nature of posting a blog, I guess: The presumption to speak with authority. I don't mean to be an ass when I do this. I simply am engaging in a very public form of thinking aloud. So, with this exploding dice thing, it's just a new thing to me. I heard about it. Saw a version of it somewhere. Whatever my encounter with it might have been, it made me think about how I could hack it for my own purposes.

I surmise that someone has probably done what I'm talking about here in a game I'm not familiar with, or has written about it elsewhere. If that's the case, and I'm just repeating their ideas, it's not intentional. I don't play that many games, and don't claim broad RPG expertise. So, when people make reference to what I write about by comparing it to this or that rule in some game I've never heard of, I feel kind of stupid, sure, but I also sort of don't care that much. Oh, I reinvented the wheel? Cool. If it's an original thought, well... that also was an accident. Individual results may vary.